[This review was originally published at Christianity Today in December 2004.]
For the second time this year, American audiences are being treated to a martial arts epic by the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. But where Hero was a perfect title for a movie about a courageous warrior’s quest for vengeance, the title of the new film, House of Flying Daggers, is misleading. In Japan, it is more appropriately titledThe Lovers. Daggers is a more colorful choice, but The Lovers correctly identifies the focus of the film.
Set during the Tang dynasty, 859 A.D, Daggers follows the rapidly accelerating romance between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police deputy in service of the emperor, and Mei (Hero’sZhang Ziyi), a woman who belongs to an undercover resistance effort called House of Flying Daggers, a group of powerful warriors who, like the famous “Merry Men,” steal from the rich and give to the poor.
Jin first encounters Mei while investigating rumors that a brothel called Peony Pavilion is harboring a Flying Daggers agent. Enthusiastic about his assignment, he poses as a customer and teases the beautiful courtesans until they introduce him to “the new girl.” He’s astonished by Mei’s beauty, but even more so by the fact that she is blind.
Overcome with lust, Jin nearly rapes Mei right there in full view of everyone, and he has to be apprehended by his superior officer, Leo (Andy Lau), who proceeds to test Mei himself. What follows is one of several applause-worthy sequences—a dance challenge called “the Echo Game” that might as well be titled “Dance of the Very Long Sleeves.” Mei may be blind, but her hearing, her intuition, and her dancing are almost superhuman.
But her beauty may be her strongest weapon. It inspires a rescue that enables her to flee into the wilderness with an unlikely companion—Jin. Infatuated, Jin declares that he’s abandoning his post in order to join the Flying Daggers. Forget about his police duties—Jin calls himself “the Wind” because he likes to live free of any binding commitments. Hoping to shape him into a more suitable suitor, Mei quips, “I want the wind to stop and think.”
Mei’s gravity-defying talents are not limited to dancing. Her pursuers quickly learn that they’re no match for the blind warrior. But as Jin and Mei fight their way out of close calls, we’re led to wonder if she’s being deceived. Is Jin being honest about his love? Or is he a liar and an opportunist?
Daggers’ battle scenes, like Hero‘s, are beautifully choreographed—they almost qualify as dances—and exquisitely filmed by Zhao Xiaoding. The Peony Pavilion is as ornate as a palace, the opulence distracting us from the action in the foreground. Later, the flirtatious fugitives are surrounded by sword-bearing soldiers in a field full of yellow flowers. At times, there’s a comic book quality to the combat: daggers and arrows move as smartly as heat-seeking missiles. A conflict in a forest concludes with the most thrilling exhibition of archery since Legolas pincushioned the orcs in The Fellowship of the Ring. The most awe-inspiring sequence takes place in a patch of sky-high bamboo—the camera gazes up at a shadowy army leaping through the branches of a green ceiling, the soldiers hurling sharpened bamboo spears which whistle like flutes as they descend toward their targets. The climactic battle takes place in snow that wipes detail from the screen, so that a single drop of red blood, echoing the single drop of red ink that opens the film, is shocking.
The awe-inspiring visual experience of House of Flying Daggers is almost a match for its predecessor. Hero looked as though it would stand as the pinnacle of the wuxia genre for years to come. But here, the director has risen to challenge his own standard-setting work. Viewers will argue over which film is superior.They differ in many ways. Shigeru Umebayashi’s Daggersscore is more beautiful and melodramatic than Tan Dun’sHero soundtrack. Whereas Hero‘s special effects were seamless, Daggers’ digital animation is obvious and at times distracting. This is a tale told in close-ups; Hero tended toward vast panoramic scenes. Hero’s dialogue was heavy and solemn, but this script, co-written with Yimou by Li Feng and Wang Bin, boasts some witty banter between “the lovers,” who tease and test each other with lines as sharp as their weapons.
But they have many similar elements as well—melodrama, lust, betrayal, swords, arrows, and beautiful environments that change their colors in synchronicity with the changing emotions and experiences of the characters. Like Hero, Daggers would be an overwhelming experience evenwithout its characters and plot; the backdrops are enough to convince audiences to plan their next vacation in China.
The cast, just as impressive as Hero‘s, develops memorable chemistry. Zhang Ziyi delivers her greatest performance. While she still lacks the nuance and complexity of the director’s most famous leading lady, Gong Li (To Live, Raise the Red Lantern), audiences will be spellbound by her beauty and the way she confidently shifts between acrobatic combat and delicate love scenes. She steams up the screen with Takeshi Kaneshiro on more than one occasion without any nudity or unnecessarily explicit behavior. She’s secretive and mysterious, starkly contrasting her pursuer’s playfulness and reckless emotion. Andy Lau makes Jin’s superior officer a memorably dour and determined character, authoritative at the beginning and unhinged at the end.
The narrative, like Hero‘s, leads us to confounding surprises. (If you want to be surprised, avoid other reviews!) The first and best surprise occurs two-thirds of the way through the film. For a moment, the story has an opportunity to become a triumph of true love over the glorified infatuation that passes for love in its earlier chapters.
But Zhang Yimou has something more complex in mind. This is not a simple morality play, but rather a film that ends with questions about the warring inclinations of the human heart. Is the impetuous love of youth, which breaks rules, seizes the day, and indulges in life’s pleasures, stronger and more valuable than the steadfast love of maturity, which favors trust, duty, responsibility, and fidelity?
Alas, this conflict between two sides—hormones without integrity, and commitment without compassion—seems irreconcilable. Women are portrayed as fickle and manipulative; men are proud and possessive. While Hero troubled American audiences by its seeming-glorification of Chinese Imperialism, Daggers will make viewers squirm with repeated scenes in which Mei is the victim of severe sexual advances. There’s more emphasis on the sex drive than the drive for a communion of minds and hearts. The story offers us no example to suggest that love can be both spirited and faithful, enraptured and disciplined. By the end of the film, we no longer know where to place our sympathies.
Nevertheless, discerning viewers are likely to more reason to praise Zhang Yimou than to punish him. As in Hero and 2004’s other beautiful-but-flawed epic, A Very Long Engagement, the achievement of visual splendor will outweigh the narrative’s missteps. Storytelling is just one aspect of what cinema has to offer. Beauty is a powerful gift as well, and Zhang Yimou’s exhilarating imagination is reason enough for most moviegoers to get in line for House of Flying Daggers. His narrative may never apprehend what true love is all about, but those who discuss these characters and their motivations may learn a thing or two from observing what true love is not.