House of Flying Daggers (2004) Movie Review

Zhang Yimou, coming off “Hero”, his most internationally acclaimed and successful film to date, now brings us another martial arts epic set in ancient China. “House of Flying Daggers” stars Andy Lau (“Infernal Affairs”) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (“Returner”) as Leo and Jin, respectively, two Imperial underlings ordered to bring down a rebel group called the House of Flying Daggers. The empire is on the verge of collapse, and the Daggers are helping to move things along. Not surprisingly, the Powers That Be are a tad ticked.

With just 10 days to get the job done, Leo and Jin target Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancing girl working at a brothel. The two men believe Mei not only has intimate knowledge of the House of Flying Daggers, but also knows its current whereabouts. They hatch a plan to arrest her, and then have Jin pose as a rebel to rescue Mei from prison. Fleeing into the mountains, the duo is pursued by Imperial goons to further the charade. Alas, complications ensue — Jin and Mei falls in love, leaving Leo and a Third Act plot twist blowing in the wind.

The one thing most people will notice immediately about “Flying Daggers” is the excessive amount of CGI on display. If Yimou showed that he wasn’t averse to computer-animated arrows in “Hero”, then he proves once and for all that he’s embracing the future with “Daggers”. Almost every single sword, dagger, arrow, spear, and bamboo (yes, I said bamboo) that flies around in the film was rendered via CGI. This allows Yimou and company to make inanimate objects do some spectacular things, such as an arrow ricocheting off a fallen shield to find its target, daggers that slice their way through a forest of bamboos as if they had minds of their own, and hundreds of bamboo spears chasing their victims as if they had eyes. Later, we even get CGI snow just for the hell of it.

Although the movie’s romantic angle is worth mentioning (and if you asked Yimou, he’d probably tell you it’s the only thing worth mentioning), it won’t be the movie’s main selling point by a long shot. The elaborate action in “House of Flying Daggers” will dominate its ads should the film ever find its way to the States. And why not? Yimou has painstakingly choreographed every action scene to within an inch of its life. The movie is full of fights, from a clever rumble in a brothel to a series of running battles in the open countryside as Jin and Mei are pursued by dogged Imperial assassins.

The film also offers up a Third Act plot twist that, in many ways, renders the preceding 2 acts moot. Without spoiling too much, the twist does seem to make logical sense, as it would further the cause of the rebel groups trying to overthrow the current ruling Tang dynasty. But the truth is, the script needn’t be so ambitious, since by the hour mark little really matters except for the sudden emergence of a love triangle that seems to have no way out for any of its three participants.

The cast of “Flying Daggers” is one of its main attractions, with all three principals played by three of Asia’s top names. Zhang Ziyi, the “It” girl who has done more period Chinese/Asian epics than anyone else in the span of a few short years (including “Musa”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and “Hero” to name just a few), does a stellar job as the blind girl. (And if you ever wondered why men everywhere fawn over the young lady, her dance number at the beginning of the film should dispel all confusion.) The young Ziyi is such an old hand with this type of role that it’s hard to fault anything she does in the film, especially since she does them so well and with such great conviction.

Also, the fact that Ziyi and Kaneshiro are both insanely attractively people makes it easier to accept their characters suddenly and without real merit falling all over each other in the space of a few days. A few weeks, or months, might have been understandable, but a few days really does not seem anywhere long enough for Mei and Jin to develop the type of undying love that they showcase later in the film. Also, since Andy Lau is the oldest of the trio, I think you can guess who gets all the lovin’ in the film. (Hint: it ain’t ol Andy. He’s left out in the snow. Literally.)

If you’ve seen enough Chinese films, you won’t be the least bit surprised by “Daggers'” overly melodramatic Third Act. The good news is that fans of martial arts films will get their fill of action and spectacle, as well as some breathtaking cinematography. Understandably, there’s a reason why the Flying Daggers underground uses the bamboo fortress as their port of call — it’s gorgeous. Zhang Yimou’s choice to set much of the film outdoors was an excellent idea; the Chinese country has never looked more beautiful and lyrical. With “Hero” and now “Daggers”, one gets the feeling Yimou is not the kind of director who likes to be constrained.

When all is said and done, “House of Flying Daggers” can best be described as a simple love story in the guise of an epic. Whatever ambitious plots the film may have opened with, it soon forgets them when the movie’s secret affections, love affairs, and betrayals are revealed. Keep that in mind, and the film’s contemplative Third Act won’t be such a shock to the system.

Yimou Zhang (director) / Feng Li, Bin Wang, Yimou Zhang (screenplay)
CAST: Takeshi Kaneshiro …. Jin
Andy Lau …. Leo
Ziyi Zhang …. Mei
Dandan Song …. Yee

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