House Of Flying Daggers

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 17, 2004  (Source:Ziyi Zhang, ready to rumble)

While Zhang Yimou's recent film "Hero" was a gorgeous ballad set out in vignettes of serial monochrome, his current release, "House of Flying Daggers," is a superbly envisioned and elaborately designed work that celebrates all colors, all the time. The direction, production design, and cinematography are pure visual silk -- and the sound design is full, rich, and as thrilling as the bodies that soar and struggle across the screen.

No dounbt part of this is owed to the fact that one of the major characters, Mei (Ziyi Zhang), is a blind woman -- and a dancer of extraordinary skill. This being a Chinese action flick, she's also a kickin' martial arts master. Every sound and stir of air contributes to her picture of the world and allows her to fight off overzealous suitors or, as the occasion arises, small armies of government troops.

Mei is a member of The House of Flying Daggers, a Robin-Hood-like outfit that ranges across Feng Tian County stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. This enthralls the common folk, but sends the local constabulary into conniptions. Suspecting that a new girl at the local brothel might be associated with the Flying Daggers mob, Leo (Andy Lau Tak Wah), a Captain of the local deputies, dispatches his colleague Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to pose as a client and get a feel for her -- a task Jin throws himself into whole-heartedly, jumping on Mei after she performs a stunning number. This is all a pretext for Leo to burst in and arrest Mei and Jin for indecent behavior, but Leo pretends to relent when the brothel's Madam (Song Dandan) begs him to let Mei off with a warning. Leo agrees on one condition: that Mei play "The Echo Game" with him. A spectacular dance-cum-martial arts sequence ensues as Mei, long sleeves writhing like tentacles, pounds drums and snatches Leo sword from its scabbard with a cry of, "Government running dogs!"

There's a wild melee between Mei and Leo at this point -- did we expect anything less? -- but eventually Mei winds up in Leo's custody, and if it were up to the skirt-chasing Jin, that would be that: he's all for going out and tying one on after a hard day's superhuman wire stunts. But Mei's arrest turns out to be only the opening gambit in a larger game: Leo assigns Jin to "rescue" Mei and then to escort her back to her companions at The House of Flying Daggers, with the idea of following after the fleeing pair and then jumping in, with major backup, to arrest the mob en masse. Long before Jin and Mei reach the gang's hideaway, though, daggers are soaring across the landscape as the pair take on over-zealous government soldiers. The brothel setting is the last word in luxurious elegance, but the natural panoramas through which Jin and Mei move (like a "playful wind" in Jin's fun-loving parlance) possess atmospheric grandeur -- all the better for getting down to it, as Mei takes on horseback-mounted troops in the forest, or the duo fend off soldiers on a grassy plain, or -- traditional in Chinese action movies -- the action shifts to a bamboo grove, where Mei and Jin and stalked by foes that seem to swim through the canopy above, and who constantly re-arm themselves by hacking bamboo shafts into veritable hails of makeshift spears.

Yimou sets the story up as a rebellion against a corrupt State, but that's another feint in a movie full of swift and graceful fighting choreography. In a matter of a few days, Jin and Mei are falling in love -- and the fact that there's a rival out there with the Flying Daggers who already lays claim to Mei's affections only stirs the cauldron of their ferocious desire. It all leads to tearful clenches among the bamboo, wild romps of passion in grassy meadowlands, and the anxious inquiry from both suitors, "Do you love him?!" Mei, of course, loves them both: a sure sign of impending tragedy. The final battle between Mei's lovers is grandly mythic, as the world around the fighing figures fades from glorious fall foliage to deep, tree-bending snow. Yimou aims for sweeping romance, and mostly manages it, but there are a few threads unraveling by the end, not least of which is the question of what's going down between the government forces and the Flying Daggers during the epic snow-and-swordplay climax. Yimou is so caught up in the emergent romance that he veers away, sharply and suddenly, from what initially appeared to be the film's plot, retroactively replacing the gist of his story with another set of intentions altogether. My advice: just go with it. Yimou's new film is a cross-pollination of stories you've seen before, but not with such lush beauty and sure-footed action bursting from every frame.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.