Movie review by Greg Carlson
A companion piece – but not a sequel – to “Hero,” Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers” scales back on sweeping political unification parables in favor of a much more straightforward wuxia pian soap opera. Presenting a typical battle-to-the-death love triangle, complete with hidden identities, double agents, and plenty of breathtaking wire-work, Zhang continues to capitalize on the growing appeal of the genre in the West. Following the gigantic success story of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” several filmmakers have secured larger budgets to accommodate their imaginative vision, and Zhang is arguably the most gifted stylist in the bunch.
While a certain constituency of his fan base regularly laments the director’s personal and professional split from Gong Li, the gorgeous muse who top-lined practically all of the movies made during Zhang’s most creatively fertile period, others have been happy to see what the master can do within the confines of the action format. Zhang Ziyi, a startling beauty in her own right, has largely picked up where Gong Li left off, and one thing that has not changed is the filmmaker’s unyielding use of adoring close-ups to showcase the practically indescribable loveliness of his central performer.
The plot is merely a pretense to stage the action, and it is the weakest of the movie’s concerns. Even so, Zhang fashions a workable structure in which a regional officer named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pretends to protect Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer suspected of being a member of the House of Flying Daggers, in order to get close to the leadership of the dangerous clan. With another government soldier (Andy Lau) in pursuit, Jin and Mei take to the woods, narrowly escaping capture or death, and falling in love in the process. Kaneshiro, one of the memorable leading performers in Wong Kar Wai’s amazing “Chungking Express,” has the looks to match Zhang Ziyi, and the blossoming romance heats up at several opportune moments.
Like “Hero,” the success of “House of Flying Daggers” depends upon the staging of its fight sequences, and the awesome production design matches the rainbow-colored hues of the earlier film. In one early scene, Mei competes in a skillful drum duel in an opulent brothel, beating the skins with the billowing sleeves of her elaborate garment. Even with the intrusion of some CG trickery, the overall impact of sound and vision is awesome, and should keep fans happy until the next clever set-piece can be devised.
Only the most die-hard adherents to the martial arts film will find fault in the arrangement of the film’s plot, but flat characters are the rule here and not the exception. On some level, this allows the viewer to bask in the elaborate choreography of the fight scenes, but one longs for fully rounded inhabitants to match the splendor of this magical world. The climactic battle assuages most of those pangs, however, as Zhang stages a heart-stopping clash in an autumnal forest that transforms into a swirling blizzard in the blink of an eye. The images, like the filmmaker’s best, remain fixed in the imagination long after the lights have come up.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/31/05.