In the year 859 AD, the corrupt Tang dynasty is in decline. A revolutionary group known as the House of Flying Daggers proves a great threat to the empire, and police officer Leo (Andy Lau) suspects that a blind dancing girl called Mei (Ziyi Zhang) might be the long-lost daughter of their old leader. He dispatches his deputy Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to go undercover as a fellow revolutionary in an attempt to draw the Flying Daggers into the open.
Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers follows the huge success of his 2002 epic Hero, and like that film it combines spectacular visuals with thrilling displays of martial arts. It’s a good companion piece but is a different film, actually much closer in tone to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s crossover hit to which Hero was wrongly compared. In terms of story, it’s certainly a lot more straightforward than the confusing, multiple narrative of Hero. After pretending to rescue Mei from the clutches of Leo, Jin accompanies the girl as they flee, hoping he can learn the location of the Flying Daggers. What he doesn’t count on is falling for her, a situation complicated even further when Leo himself is revealed to be both in love with Mei and a member the rebel gang.
The first half plays out as a thrilling action movie. As Jin and Mei make their journey across country, Jin learns that his general is sending real troops against them, believing that the Flying Daggers are unlikely to emerge unless Mei is in real danger. So Jin is forced to go up against his own colleagues in a series of gripping confrontations, including a bloody showdown in a field of long grass and a spectacular chase through a forest of bamboo, as the general’s soldiers pursue the couple metres above them in the treetops. These fights make heavy use of CGI, the camera following arrows and knives as they soar through the air, but are none the worse for it; Yimou is able to make clever use of the technology without overwhelming an old-fashioned story with it.
Andy Lau, playing Leo, features very little during this first hour, but Ziyi Zhang and Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro contribute a youthful charisma to their roles. The stunning Zhang was massively underused in Hero, but here she is central to the entire plot – in the end, the film is about her and not the Flying Daggers. Which is unfortunately the problem with the overly melodramatic second half, when Leo and Jin’s true identities are revealed to each other and Mei is forced to choose between them. It’s not hard to see why both men would be in love with her, but its less clear why she would fall for Jin. He does save her a couple of times, granted, but she knows all along he’s an undercover agent of the despised Tang Emperor, and Yimou is more interested in showing them running and fighting than actually falling in love. The anticipated spectacular showdown between the Flying Daggers and the general’s men never happens; instead the film climaxes with a vicious snow-bound duel between the two men vying for Mei’s affection which, while well staged, is not nearly as stirring as it should have been.
Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer behind Hero’s much-heralded visual palate, does not return here, but replacement Zhao Xiaoding ensures House of Flying Daggers is no less beautiful to look at. As in that earlier film – and other Yimou classics like Raise the Red Lantern – colour is everything. The walls and panels of the brothel in which Mei is working at the beginning are so intricately painted that it’s difficult to take it all in – the dazzling ‘echo dance’ she performs turns the room into a swirling tapestry. Elsewhere, the countryside through which the Mei and Jin make their escape is brought vividly to life, and the bamboo forest is bathed in a rich, shimmering green.
House of Flying Dagger is not as strong a film as Hero, but perhaps the comparison is unfair. What Yimou has attempted is a smaller scale, more human martial arts drama that makes no great observations about the human condition, and the director deserves credit for trying to engage the heart as well as the eyes.
Chinese director responsible for some of the country’s best known international hits. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Yimou made his debut in 1987 with Red Sorghum, which like much of his later work combined a small-scale drama with stunning visuals. His breakthrough film was the beautiful Raise the Red Lantern, the first of four films he made with then-partner Gong Li. The Story of Qui Ju, To Live, Shanghai Triad and Not One Less were among the films Yimou made throughout the 90s. The Chaplin-esque comedy Happy Times was a bit of a misfire, but 2002's Oscar-nominated martial arts spectacle Hero was a massive hit, critically and commercially. Another martial arts film, House of Flying Daggers, followed in 2004, as did Curse of the Golden Flower and later the internationally-flavoured fantasy The Great Wall.