House of Flying Daggers

(2004) *** 1/2 Pg-13
119 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Zhang Yimou. Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Song Dandan, Wang Yabin.

In the original star-crossed romantic drama Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote, "Here's much to do with hate, but more with love." The twin passions of love and hate, prone to overheating or raging out of control, mirror the totality of sex and death. In Mike Nichols' Closer, a love quadrangle verbally parries in paired-off duels until there's a metaphorical "last man standing." On the other hand, Zhang Yimou orchestrates—for the angles of his love triangle—actual parrying: swordfighting, leaping, dancing, and of course, flinging of boomerang daggers in his symbolic martial arts romance House of Flying Daggers.

Zhang Ziyi, who starred also in director Zhang's The Road Home and Hero, plays Mei, the entrancing new dancer at the Entertainment House of the Peony Pavilion, circa 859 AD. Two local police captains—Leo (Andy Lau Tak Wah) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro)—suspect that Mei can provide important intelligence about the underground, anti-imperial rebels known as the House of the Flying Daggers (they steal from the rich to give to the poor). An apparently drunken Jin flirts with Mei, who tells him, "The flowers displayed here can hardly be called flowers. Real flowers bloom in the wilderness." "Well said," Jin responds. "If you impress me, I'll take you to where the real flowers grow."

Jin discovers that Mei is blind, but she dispels any doubts as to her ability with a dazzling display of physical skill. When Jin attempts to haul her in for questioning, the two prove formidably matched. After an abortive interrogation, Leo and Jin allow Mei to escape, in the hopes that she will lead them to the at-large leader of the House of Flying Daggers. Her lusty rescuer and travelling companion is none other than Jin, who now calls himself Wind and purports to be a "free spirit...always moving." The two travel across the countryside, flushing out government soldiers all the way as they head for Flying Dagger country.

Like Zhang's other wuxia epic, Hero (the two-year-old film which only recently hit American screens), House of Flying Daggers is colorful, sumptuous, and often gorgeous, with plenty of eye-opening twists. House of Flying Daggers doesn't quite match the finesse and beauty of Hero, but Zhang knows he's obligated to deliver dazzling set pieces, and he doesn't disappoint. The majority of the film takes place in picture-perfect fields and forests. One confrontation pits increasing numbers of spear-wielding men, some on horseback, against the blind, grounded Mei. Advances in special effects allow Zhang to manipulate objects and people. One hopes that the moment when a horse leaps over the prone Zhang Ziyi represents movie magic, but it certainly looks real. Later in the film, Zhang unveils his version of the bamboo-forest action scene, complete with soldiers flinging themselves across the tree-tops with dream-like ease.

That appearances deceive allows Leo eventually to become the third point of the love triangle, and makes Mei's blindness a metaphor. Though the romance and action elements are essentially inseparable, any deficiencies of either plot thrust are mitigated by the strengths of the other. The question which echoes through the film speaks volumes about the eternal conflict of love: "Are you for real?" Trust and identity are elusive; even when such questions are resolved or sublimated, yet more troubling issues arise.

When one lover tells another, "We belong to two opposing sides. If we meet again, one of us will have to die," the promise is thick with the romantic opposition of lovers both repelled and drawn to sexual consummation: both sex and death offer a freedom but also a finality. Rescue and heroic sacrifice--the notions of freeing one or the other or each other--take on sexual dimensions. The climax, with its epochal seasonal shifts, suddenly blankets the mortal action with snow, the better to starkly set off the three principals and their spilling lifeblood.

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