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November 2004

By Julian Roman
The House of Flying Daggers

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Zhang Yimou
Producers: Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou
Screenwriters: Li Feng, Zhang Yimou, Wang Bin
Cinematographer: Zhao Xiaoding
Composer: Shigeru Umebayashi
Cast: Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, & Song Dandan



Zhang Yimou's The House of Flying Daggers would resonate more if it didn't come on the heels of Hero, Yimou's first martial arts film released in the US earlier this year. Both films are spectacularly crafted epics, lushly photographed and chock full of amazing action scenes. The problem with The House of Flying Daggers is that its story falls far short of the Rashoman-like plot used so well in Hero. It seems unfair to compare the films, but you can blame Miramax for delaying Hero all these years. It was fresh in my mind while watching The House of Flying Daggers and is a better film. That being said, Flying Daggers is an enormously entertaining film. It moves at a quick pace and throttles you with slickly choreographed fights. Zhang Ziyi, the luminous face of Chinese action cinema, captivates again with her deft physical ability. She holds her own as an actress, but deserves such praise for gracefully kicking ass. She makes it look easy and that's remarkable.

The story takes place towards the end of the Tang Dynasty in China. A secret society knows as The House of Flying Daggers is stirring a revolt against the emperor. Two high ranking policemen, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), go to a parlor to be entertained by dancing girls. The men are dedicated friends but have radically different personalities. Jin is a swinging womanizer while Leo is stern and brooding. They are presented with the parlor's newest dancer, the exquisitely beautiful Mei (Zhang Ziyi). Her performance turns deadly when Mei attempts to assassinate Leo. She fails and is locked up, doomed to a morning execution. Jin, supposedly smitten by Mei, helps her to escape. They flee into the woods with Leo not far behind. Mei is correctly dubious of Jin's motives. The escape was a hoax, engineered by Leo to sniff out the hidden leader of The House of Flying Daggers. But all is not what it seems, greater forces are manipulating the events and love is the most dangerous one of them all.

The film, amidst the mind blowing action, is driven by a series of Shakespearean-like revelations. At first it's an intriguing plot device that smoothly propels the story. The problem is when the characters are forced to deal with whatz they have learned. It turns into melodrama and this is where everything loses the edge. You get a lot of wasted dialogue followed by a conclusion that is grossly overacted. It's almost comical when it's supposed to highly dramatic. I actually found myself laughing in a scene that should have been poignant. The story loses its teeth and the ending should have been tapered to make up for it.

Zhang Yimou really becomes a casualty of his own success. He blew us away with Hero and his follow-up is not in the same league. However, fans of the martial arts fantasy genre and newcomers alike will not be disappointed. The House of Flying Daggers is wonderful to look at with enough popcorn action scenes to justify seeing it twice. It's a well made film that continues the streak of Chinese cinema gaining ground in US and European pop culture.