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Takeshi Kaneshiro as Jin
Andy Lau as Leo
Ziyi Zhang as Mei
Dandan Song as Yee
The similarities between House of Flying Daggers and Zhang Yimou's last film Hero begin and end with the physics-defying action, which veers closer to Kill Bill than Crouching Tiger, and the beautiful visuals. Otherwise, it's a step slightly backwards for the director.
In 859 AD China, the incompetence of the emperor has led to civil unrest with rebel armies forming against the government. Local army captains Leo and Jin (Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro) are assigned with the duty to capture the new leader of the rebel group, the House of Flying Daggers. Learning that they're based out of a local brothel, they use the trust of a beautiful blind dancer Mei (Ziyi Zhang) to seek out this leader, but when one of them falls in love with her, it creates a situation far deeper than the politics of battle.
Zhang Yimou's second martial arts film could be seen as a thematic sequel to Hero only in the respect that 800 years after the formation of the unified Chinese government, things are beginning to fall apart. Hero was a true tour de force for the director, having never before attempted to make an action film, but the mastery of that film makes it hard to talk about House of Flying Daggers without making comparisons between the two films.
The saying that the first time is the charm may certainly be the case here, as Zhang tries to improve on his martial arts "prototype" by reintroducing the character-driven elements of his earlier films. This allows for a somewhat simpler story about love and betrayal between this young girl and the soldiers caught up in their mission to quash the rebel unit to which she belongs.
This relationship triangle is set up early in a scene set in the colorful Peony Pavillion, where Jin first sees the blind Mei dance. When he gets a bit eager to get a bit more than just a dance, his partner bursts in threatening to take them both to jail, but instead he tests the blind girl's dancing skills with a complicated Echo Game where he throws beans against drums surrounding the dance floor in a pattern which she has to replicate. It's the film's most immediately distinctive and memorable moment, but a rare scene that isn't punctuated by some of the most violent and bloody fighting since Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Veering away from the fantasy of Hero, the fighting is more visceral and savage with actual blood shed, creating quite a contrast. At times, that realism is hard to watch like when the blind Mei is overpowered by four horsemen in the forest, but the lack of the magic of Crouching Tiger or Hero makes it less unique from Western style martial arts films.
Not to say that House of Flying Daggers is any less spectacular in its visuals in the action sequences like when Mei and Jin run through a bamboo forest, followed in the trees by soldiers bearing sharpened bamboo spears. Another great visual moment that only Zhang Yimou could pull off is the final battle that transcends the change in season from fall to winter. Unfortunately, these incredible moments are spread out across the film's two hours, instead favoring more dialogue-driven storytelling. Seemingly, Zhang tries to return to the feel of some of his earlier films without completely alienating his newfound audience, but it makes for a strange mix that doesn't always flow well. Every time you're lulled into a tranquil sense of security by the love tryst between Mei and Jin, soldiers attack them, leading to another bloody fight. Because the story isn't as strong or unique, the long sections of story development are far less interesting than the sparser action sequences.
Once again, Zhang uses a minimal cast of characters but those that found Hero's narrative somewhat confusing will appreciate his more linear approach to storytelling. That said, there's very little comparison between the adorable young Ziyi Zhang, whose standout trait as an actress is her ability to have her clothes ripped off in every movie, to the far more experienced Maggie Cheung, whom she fought in Hero. The best performance belongs to Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, who brings a fine sense of comedic timing to his strong role. He also does a great job with the multitude of weapons at his disposal, proving as adept with the bow and arrow as Legolas. Andy Lau's role is rather limited by comparison, but the chemistry between the three actors never really attains the heights of the threesome between Ziyi, Cheung and Lau's Infernal Affairs co-star Tony Leung in Hero.
Otherwise, the most notable missing elements from the crew are cinematographer Christopher Doyle and composer Tan Dun, both who brought so much to the look and feel of Hero. Without Doyle, the action scenes are filmed with far less style and flair, and the color palette seems more muted, sticking to the earthier greens, yellows and browns found in nature. The only choice odder than using Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi to score as decidedly Chinese film was to have opera singer Kathleen Battle sing a ballad in English over the closing credits.
On its own, House of Flying Daggers is a truly marvelous and beautiful film, but following on the heels of Hero and even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is something lost when the magic is taken out of the equation. Instead of being another truly great film from Zhang, it's simply a very good one.