Mere months after the U.S. release of Zhang Yimou’s Hero – a film which was made in 2002 but then inexplicably left on a shelf for two years by Miramax – the acclaimed Chinese director returns with House of Flying Daggers, a significantly superior samurai epic about an ardent love triangle between a fetching assassin and the two warriors who covet her. In 849 A.D. China, the government’s efforts to eradicate the Robin Hood-ish “House of Flying Daggers” clan has resulted in the death of the insurgents’ leader but no further progress in undermining the shadowy organization. To surreptitiously discover the identity of Flying Daggers’ new chief, local deputy Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) – posing as a disaffected opponent of the cruel, repressive government – woos a beautiful blind swordswoman named Mei (Zhang Ziyi) who may be the daughter of the Flying Daggers’ fallen general. Mei and Jin are suspicious of each other’s motives, yet hesitant romance soon blossoms between the wary companions, much to the chagrin of Jin’s boss, captain Leo (Andy Lau).
Yimou, working with cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, drenches his film in pulsating primary colors that reflect the changing seasons of the couple’s burgeoning affair (a golden field of springtime flowers segues into the autumnal evergreen of a bamboo forest and, finally, a wintry snowbound climax). And his exhilarating action sequences – once again employing graceful wirework and deft CGI, such as during recurring POV shots of daggers slicing through the air – have a refined majesty. The wondrous set pieces are numerous, from Mei’s lithe dance in a brothel (in which her long silk sleeves bang on drums and, stunningly, wield a blade) to a semi-airborne forest scuffle in which hordes of enemies scale towering bamboo trees with chimp-like fluidity. Bolstered by Tao Jing’s potent sound design and the plaintive, choir-like singing of Shigeru Umebayashi’s stirring score, these thrilling, exquisitely choreographed skirmishes (in which blades magically bend in the heat of battle and combatants levitate as if buoyed by the wind) have a mesmerizing beauty and poise, and on more than one occasion made me audibly gasp in delighted amazement.
Though the film’s visual splendor equals (if not surpasses) Hero’s loveliness, House of Flying Daggers boasts a fervently melodramatic soul all-too-noticeably absent from the director’s previous sword-fighting adventure. Ziyi’s physical dexterousness and startling emotional guilelessness results in the most assured, moving performance of the year, and as Jin and Leo battle for Mei’s affection, Yimou wonderfully conveys how the act of loving another can be a game, a sacrifice, a ruse, a weapon, a betrayal, and, most of all, a political act. Mei’s choice between Leo and Jin is, fundamentally, a decision between dutiful adherence to her beliefs on the one hand, and irrational rebellion against them on the other. Yimou, throughout the swoon-worthy third act, conflates conflicts of the heart with those of the state. Yet the ultimate elevation of Mei and Jin’s relationship above the story’s larger political backdrop reveals the director’s staunch faith in love’s overpowering grandness – and, in the process, confirms his status as one of cinema’s preeminently romantic, humanistic filmmakers.
-- 2004 New York Film Festival