In “House of Flying Daggers” — as in his previous outing, “Hero” — director Zhang Yimou transfigures the martial arts movie into a grand, international-quality outing. When Ang Lee made “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” he managed to balance big-budget production values with the needs of an intimate narrative. Balance, however, is not the word to describe Yimou’s latest (nor, for that matter, “Hero” whose heavy-handedness taxed my patience to the brink).
Yimou is a wonderful filmmaker, renowned deservedly for his incisive studies of Chinese society–using interpersonal politics as archetypes for society at large and the historic past as an allegory for the present. Indeed, “Flying Daggers” may be read as sociopolitical allegory, but that fancy stuff matters little if you can’t deliver on the fundamentals of story, a love story in this case.
Of concern is a love triangle involving a blind girl, a government cop and a rebel. It’s Yimou’s way of saying that true love is blind and goes deeper than whose side you’re on, whether it’s the establishment or the resistence. Zhao Xiaoding’s sumptuous cinematography introduces us to 9th century China. A rebellion led by the eponymous guerilla fighters against the corrupt Tang Dynasty fractures the country. When cocksure cop Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) discovers that blind dancing girl Mei (the ever-gorgeous Ziyi Zhang) is, in fact, a Flying Daggers infiltrator, he poses as a raffish vagabond and tries to win her trust (and her heart), aiding her escape from government soldiers so as to worm his way into the rebellion’s inner sanctum. After saving her life–at least three times, by my count–Jin and Mei realize they love each other madly, in spite of their differences. Vexing their thorny affair is Leo (Andy Lau), one of Mei’s comrades and a former flame, posing now as a government officer. Passions among the trio lead to predictable territory: Leo fumes with resentment over Mei’s waning love for him while Mei and Jin bid desperately to keep their love burning in a time of windy upheaval.
There’s much in “Flying Daggers” to fill the eye and distract the senses, whether it’s Huo Tingxiao’s exquisite production design — especially the mandarin-baroque interiors of a royal bordello — or Emi Wada’s meticulous costumes. And Yimou knows how to stage himself an action scene: Flashing swords, daggers and bodies swirl amid a gamut of dramatic setpieces and, as a showcase for pure cinema, it’s riveting stuff. At its worst, the movie’s action feels repetitious, a tiring succession of climaxes, a tedious two-hour excuse for this director to indulge his fetish for digitalized blood and daggers and for immaculately composed nature shots. It’s all an empty shell of sound and fury that Yimou’s script (co-written by Li Feng and Wang Bin) fills with skimpy characters, clichéd plotting, and a lot of hand-wringing. “Flying Daggers” is epic tedium–the best reason yet to wish that Ang Lee had never let slip that Pandora’s Box of digital gimmickery, allowing for an entire genre to lose its down-and-dirty essence.
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Written by: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Dandan Song