House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to the brilliant Hero, was conceived as a companion piece, but it lacks its predecessor’s consistent stylization and crisp, intricate plotting. In scripting the film, Zhang collaborated again with Feng Li and Bin Wang, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay for Hero, but instead of a tale of war and political maneuvering with a love story on the side, Flying Daggers brings the romance to the forefront, slighting some of the more complex issues the plot introduces. It has plenty of twists and turns of its own, though, as various characters switch sides or reveal their true identities, keeping the viewer constantly off guard.
The film opens with a brief scene in a provincial police headquarters, circa 859 A.D., then moves to a stunning sequence in the Peony Pavilion, a great candy-colored brothel constructed of intricately carved and painted beams and strewn with an elaborate rainbow of silks. Here Jin, a deputy working undercover, pretends to be drunk and boorish in order to draw out and appraise Mei, the Pavilion’s new, blind “entertainer,” who may or may not be connected to the House of Flying Daggers, an elite group of martial artists who are waging an underground guerilla war against the corrupt Tang Dynasty. Jin is working to identify and locate the Flying Daggers’ new leader, whose predecessor Jin’s police brigade has recently assassinated.
Mei is played by Ziyi Zhang, of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She emerges in an elaborate costume of silk brocade, with her face powdered and her hair pulled back into an elaborate headdress (she resembles Jennifer Lopez in the fantasy sequences of The Cell). Jin tries to have his way with her, but the madam, Yee (Song Dandan) steps in, explaining that Mei is new to the brothel and not yet ready for his purposes. Instead, Mei performs a beautiful, elaborate dance, using the long sleeves of her costume as extensions of her limbs. At its conclusion, as Jin is once again attempting to put the moves on her, they are interrupted by a battalion of police, come to arrest them all. The police, though, are led by Jin’s friend, Leo (Andy Lau), and the raid is part of their plan.
Yee begs Leo to spare Mei, and he offers a challenge. Dozens of standing drums are arranged in a circle, and Leo and Mei play an elaborate version of Simon in which he flecks a bean, then a pattern of beans, some of which ricochet, at a drum or a series of drums, and she must repeat the action with her long, graceful, prehensile sleeves. The effect is unearthly and lyrical.
Taken prisoner by the police, Mei refuses to speak, even under threat of torture, so Jin breaks her out, and, in his guise as an outlaw, attempts to win her trust and persuade her to lead him to the Flying Daggers. They journey across an ever-changing landscape, flirting and, inevitably, falling in love. Jin defends Mei from an attack by police from his own unit by pretending to kill them, but then another attack comes, from officers who have no idea that Jin is on their side, and he is forced to actually take their lives rather than let them kill him or Mei. These men have been sent by a general who is obsessed with locating the Flying Daggers and doesn’t care if his men live or die as long as Mei leads them to their target. Pretending to be an outlaw, Jin is forced to actually become one, and he is wracked with guilt over the comrades he’s had to kill. Mei asks him to leave her, and he’s torn between his duty, his growing love for Mei, and his wish to remain alive. Attacked in a bamboo forest and totally outnumbered, Mei and Jin are rescued by the Flying Daggers, who take them to their headquarters, where we learn much about the characters’ true identities and the love triangle that has brought them here and will be the undoing of them all.
In preparation for playing Mei, Ziyi Zhang lived for two months with a blind girl, and she is as convincing in her blindness as she is in not allowing it to be a handicap. She is as lovely, graceful, and elegant as ever, and she keeps you constantly guessing about the mysterious Mei. As Jin, Takeshi Kaneshiro (of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express) grows from a callow youth into a disillusioned soldier and tortured lover in a brief period without overselling the sudden growth, but in his later scenes lacks the gravity necessary to be fully convincing. Andy Lau fairs better, conveying his suffering with an intensity that stays just this side of being over the top.
Though it’s full of action and suspense, House of Flying Daggers lacks the reverberations of Hero’s plot. The action is fast-paced and exciting, and Zhang’s new cinematographer, Zhao Xiaoding, is adept, but some sequences go on longer than necessary (the film was edited by first-timer Cheng Long). In focusing on the love story, the film also elides plot points: near the film’s climax, we see soldiers approaching the Daggers’ headquarters, but there’s no follow-through; we return to the lovers’ tale and never find out what happened between the police and the rebels. The love triangle, though a justifiably popular plot element in literature, stage, and film, doesn’t carry the same weight as Hero’s more abstract themes, and Zhang doesn’t bring the same conviction to romantic melodrama that he did to the issues of honor, duty, and sacrifice. On its own terms, House of Flying Daggers is an entertaining, affecting romantic epic, but it suffers by comparison to Zhang’s richer work.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
House of Flying Daggers / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()