Dir. Zhang Yimou, 2004, China/Hong Kong, 119 mins
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang, Dandan Song
House of Flying Daggers is the latest martial arts epic to follow the high-flying leaps of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Like its predecessor, and the recently released Hero (from the same director), Daggers is a 'wuxia' film: of the classic Chinese genre that combines dazzling swordplay and chivalrous warriors testing their honour in Imperial times.
Its 859 AD and two of the Emperor's local captains, Jin and Leo (Kaneshiro and Lau) seek to infiltrate the deadly rebel army, the House of Flying Daggers. Jin breaks the beautiful and mysterious young Mei (Zhang) from prison, pretending to be her ally, in the hope that she will bring them to the secret leader. Each of the three main characters is hiding their true motives from each other. When Jin and Mei fall in love, in the midst of all the feudal subterfuge, the stage is set for confrontations on an operatic scale.
Like Hero, also directed by Zhang Zhimou, this film draws the viewer in early with the sheer beauty of its composition and audacity of movement. Zhimou has taken inspiration from Crouching Tiger and then applied a more painterly eye to his sequences. He invents something called the "Echo Game" where Mei, as the martial artist/dancer stands in the centre of circle of drums, and has to ping dozens of pebbles around with balance and dexterity, her robes a-flutter in slow motion. Leading seamlessly into a deadly fight, this game fizzes with colour, movement, and a mastery of the medium - it's simply outstanding.
As in Crouching Tiger, there is a bamboo forest scene to reckon with (a staple of many of the Chinese films of this type). Again this is an eye-popping sequence, made by people who love cinema, and sure to be enjoyed by the same.
Beauty is in the detail and the execution. The actual flying daggers themselves (the assassins' weapon of choice) can be deflected from their course, spinning, and darting like pinballs, even arriving in duplicate; surprising the victim.
The director also marshals his actors well, in a film as much about chivalry and emotion as it is about incredible fighting moves. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau are both charismatic figures, relatively unknown to western audiences. Unlike Ziyi Zhang, whose star continues to rise and rise, as she does so gracefully in this and the other two recent wuxia hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. This film doesn't quite match the former as an overall narrative, nor the latter on sheer breathtaking visuals, but packs an emotional punch with its star-crossed lovers.
For international audiences, House of Flying Daggers is almost part of a new genre, with its irresistible choreography, photography, acting and Chinese mythology. Hopefully directors like Zhang Zhimou, Ang Lee and others will continue to make fabulous examples like this. Never mind the Western, here comes the Eastern.