Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers is a triangular love story heated to the boiling point in an action-movie pressure cooker. The movie's impossibly glamorous martial-arts heroes are inarticulate soldier-acrobats, locked into a game of undercover intrigue with a Chinese-box structure that keeps revealing deeper levels of deception and betrayal.
In genre terms, the premise is primal: the provincial authorities in Fengtian, in Tang Dynasty China (circa 800 A.D.), have reached a turning point in their long-running game of cat-and-mouse with a wily clan of rebel conspirators, the House of Flying Daggers. Though the Daggers have suffered some recent setbacks, their effectiveness seems to be increasing, and a steely veteran government enforcer, Leo, played with artfully damped-down inner force by Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah, has assigned his most trusted protg to infiltrate the enemy camp by seducing the daughter of its recently assassinated leader.
This aspect of the story resembles quite a few movies about undercover cops who get in too deep. As soon as we clap eyes on them, we know it's only a matter of time before the infiltrator, Jin, a dashing yet ingenuous lady killer played by pan-Asian heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro (Returner), will fall hard for his target, Mei, a doe-eyed blind swordswoman (Zhang Ziyi, the cast-iron pixie from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). What's surprising is how quickly they are swept away, and how helpless these powerful warriors seem in the grip of some fairly commonplace emotions.
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In the end, though, that's the point. Like both Crouching Tiger and Zhang Yimou's first venture into the genre, Hero, the movie isn't a kung fu slugfest but a high-flying swashbuckler in the ancient foundational genre known as wuxia ("martial chivalry"), whose rigorously trained paragons achieve physical abilities that border on the magical. But Zhang sees these martial-arts wizards—soldiers who are also athletes and acrobats—as people who communicate eloquently only with and through their bodies. They don't talk much. (In one version of the script for Zhang's Hero, the assassin played by Jet Li was a mute who communicated by writing on the ground with his sword, a theme that survives in the finished film in some scenes associating the art of swordplay with calligraphy.) It's perfectly logical in this context—as it was in, say, Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America—that in separate scenes, both the men in Flying Daggers attempt to force themselves upon the woman they claim to love.
Flying Daggersis the most seamless piece of sensuous expressionism Zhang has created since Judou (1990). In a way that seems analogous to the balance of attributes in his characters, he seems most eloquent when he is least verbal. There are long passages without dialogue, audiovisual tone poems in which the lovers decide either to leave or return to each other, charging back and forth through the woods on horseback to the accompaniment of Shigeru Umebayashi's ebullient score. The movie's real subject is the emotion that sweeps these arrogant characters off their feet, and to evoke it Zhang exploits every physical resource of the movies: color, sound, music, headlong movement, and the dancelike forms of aestheticized violence that are a unique feature of Chinese martial-arts movies. Working with the gifted Hong Kong-based fight choreographer Tony Ching Siu-Tung (A Chinese Ghost Story), Zhang concocts Rube Goldberg set pieces that evolve logically from the simple to the complex to the surreal. Staging a pitched battle in a bamboo forest, and consciously trying to one-up the long line of directors who have used this location in the past, Zhang introduces a double-decker: fighters high in the branches chop the trunks into spears, hurling down so many into the ground that our heroes are hemmed in and imprisoned in a makeshift cage. With only two movies in the genre on his rsum, Zhang Yimou is already producing scalp-crawlingly beautiful effects.
Indeed, a certain amount of operatic heightening is perhaps inevitable when you set a love story in jiang hu (the realm of rivers and lakes), the mythical "martial world" of outlaws and vagabonds. It is as crucial to these stories as to those about gunfighters and gangsters that they take place in a lawless milieu in which strong men make their own rules. (Literary scholar C.T. Hsia identified a "gang morality" in the wuxia genre's DNA as far back as the novel Water Margin in the 13th century.) Flying Dagger's Chinese title, Shi Mian Mai Fu (Ambush From Ten Sides), refers to this sense of constant conflict and conspiracy.
As resonant as the subject is, the movie's fairly single-minded concern with the power of passion may end up hurting it, especially with the fanboy action crowd. Those guys will be snickering with self-conscious discomfort long before the eruption of the tempestuous love-in-death finale.