‘Flying Daggers’ another knockout from Zhang

Allan Lamb

“Look at my magical, swirly arms!” Zhang Ziyi, star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, shows off her impressive wardrobe in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers.

Credit: Beth Rankin

The second film by Chinese director Yimou Zhang to be released in the United States in 2004, House of Flying Daggers, is the best foreign language film of 2004.

After a limited release on Dec. 3, Daggers is now being released in more theaters. For any fans of Hero, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern or Ju Dou (if there are any out there), this one is a must see. Criterion Edition all the way. I mean that sincerely.

Zhang Ziyi, a supporting actress in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang’s Hero, stars as Mei, a blind warrior and member of the titular House of Flying Daggers, a militant group seeking to overthrow the existing government in 859 A.D. China. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau are Jin and Leo, two government officers trying to find the leader of the House.

Jin, a philandering swashbuckler, is sent to charm and seduce Mei in order to lead Leo and the other officers to the Daggers’ hideout. In doing so, Jin falls in love with Mei, as does she with him.

Once they discover each other’s initial intentions, they must choose between following their hearts and staying true to their causes. Ziyi and Kaneshiro are perfect as the two star-crossed lovers in the midst of a national conflict that poetically reflects the internal conflicts within each of them. All the adventurous sword fighting, steamy love-making and blindsiding plot twists lead up to an unforgettable showdown that puts Kill Bill, Vol. 1 to shame.

The story penned by Zhang, Li Feng and Wang Bing, who also collaborated on Hero, combines drama, action and depth with a bit of good humor. It is deeper and more character-based than Hero and strays from being a nationalist film, unlike Hero.

From the beginning scenes in the Peony brothel (surprisingly elegant for a whorehouse) to the final scene in a snow-covered prairie, the set design is top-notch. Vibrant colors and color-coded symbolism, Zhang’s trademarks, add visual stimulation that complements the already magnetic story rather than make up for a lack thereof. The elaborate indoor sets are unforgettably superb, bringing the viewer into the time period.

Even more beautiful are the outdoor sights of vivid green bamboo forests and an endless field of wildflowers. The natural beauty works well enough not to distract a viewer from the story, which is especially important for a movie with subtitles. The sound effects, especially in the action sequences, draw the viewer into the picture, almost literally, making one feel as if they are right there with the players.

In the foreground, and even more compelling, are the perfectly choreographed dance scenes and fight sequences. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and Zhang use slow motion to add to the suspense of the moment without the magical walking on air and water, reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

The drama and action are perfectly weaved together — neither infringes the experience of the other. The action is some of the most spectacular in recent film history being unpredictable and suspenseful as well as believable. Emi Wada, who also did the costumes for Hero, designs even more memorable and elaborate costumes than from the previous film.

Fans of Hero and Crouching Tiger won’t be disappointed at all. If you have severe ADD or can’t sit through a subtitled movie, House of Flying Daggers is probably not for you.

All things considered, House of Flying Daggers is not only an instant classic but also a cinematic masterpiece. This film is deserving of many awards for acting, sound, cinematography, direction and set and costume design.

Contact pop arts reporter Allan Lamb at [email protected].