Fans of international films have come to expect certain things from certain regions. Germany is known for acidic thrillers, France for unapologetic revelries and China for stupefying martial arts choreography woven with myth and landscape. In the case of Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, the visuals have stunned critics into zealous use of words like "gorgeous," "breathtaking" and "spectacular." And if the still-life quality of the cinematography doesn't leave you weeping, the tragic love triangle will pierce your heart like a throwing knife.
The tale begins in the barracks of beleaguered police deputies, worker bees who spend their time trying to rid the reigning dynasty of the Chinese Robin Hood. Yimou's Robin is a deadly vixen named Nia (Song Dandan), and her merry band is an order of deadly swordsmen who throw daggers with the accuracy and speed of a heat-seeking magnum. One of their brightest, a porcelain beauty named Mei (played by the incomparable Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), is placed in a brothel called the Peony Palace, and it doesn't take her enemies long to catch the scent.
Mei is introduced as a blind dancer of unsurpassed skill to a bawdy patron, and her debut performance is enthralling. Coiling yards of silk into her tiny hands, she floats over the marble floor like mist. Her sleeves twirl about her willowy figure, and by the end of the song and dance, the man is overcome with lust. Just as he is tearing at her robes, the deputies and their Captain (Andy Lau) show up to arrest everyone. But the Captain is convinced to let Mei prove herself and challenges her to the "Echo Game," which consists of a circle of drums, a bowl of dry pinto beans and a litany of complex rhythms. The ensuing battle of call and repeat demonstrates not only the unbelievable grace and power of the heroin, but also the sensual poetry of classic Chinese cinema. Unfurling fabric, drumming, athletic ballet--every element is there--and it is impossible not to delight in the artistry.
Ziyi's every gesture is deliberate, but her hardness is cut with convincing vulnerability. After being found out and threatened with torture, she is sprung from the prison by a mysterious ninja named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). His eyes look strangely familiar, and both Mei and the audience eventually recognize him as the drunk from the Peony Palace. He is an undercover policeman involved in a scam to trick the young warrior into revealing the stronghold of the Flying Daggers, but as is to be expected of two attractive youngsters on the run, the two fall helplessly in love with each in a matter of days. Their travels are fraught with polite (for the most part) sexual tension and an endless barrage of pursuers who fight in tall grasses and from the tallest boughs in the bamboo forest. True to form, Yimou provides the amazing combat sequences his audiences love so well, but over and over again they are outdone by the heated glances and intertwining fingers of Jin and Mei.
Like a good Tarantino flick without the flashbacks, House of Flying Daggers is full of surprises, vengeance and badass mothers. Every single frame is shot like a fine art photograph, and the story moves from the first leaves of fall and new love to a furious snowstorm and Shakespearean tragedy. This film is usually considered one of Yimou's early works, a nice try but still a little rough. Having not seen any of his subsequent works, I am tempted to hail it is one of the most engaging, lovely dramas I've seen in a long time, maybe even gorgeous, breathtaking and spectacular.