What is there left to say about a movie like House of Flying Daggers, another gorgeous, elegant, mythical, high-flying martial-arts romantic drama from Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), China's internationally acclaimed director? Zhang also made the color-coded Hero, which we saw this past year. Then there's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee's big hit from a few years back. And let's not forget (or, maybe, let's) Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill duet, which paid homage to the genre.
To be sure, House of Flying Daggers, like its recent Chinese ancestors, is not your grandma's Hong Kong action film. This is serious art cinema, filmed with a palette of colors almost as lush as animation, including a few scenes that look like impressionist paintings. (They may well be -- it's so hard to tell live from Memorex any more.) Its Chinese title, Shi mian mai fu, means "ambush from 10 sides." Yikes! Sounds like a job for The Bride.
Set near the approaching end of the Tang dynasty (616-907 A.D.), a period of great cultural achievement in China, House of Flying Daggers revolves around an escalating battle between a frightened government and a band of Robin Hoods who defend themselves with astounding skills, the best of them involving a sheaf of daggers -- almost intelligent in their accuracy -- carried by each warrior.
The police have orders to find the leader of the Flying Daggers in 10 days. Finding and killing their last leader took three months. So Leo (Andy Lau), an ambitious captain, concocts a plot. His deputy, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), poses as a wealthy playboy and visits a brothel where Mei (Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger), a talented new singer/dancer, might be a Flying Dagger. She is, and after the police capture her, Jin fakes her escape and whisks her to safety, all the while plying her for information on the Daggers' new leader. But he's not the only one with secrets, so don't get too confident about who's who as Mei and Jin kick and slash their way to safety and, of course, love.
Zhang provides plenty of action in Flying Daggers, the best of it being a fight in an otherworldly bamboo forest that almost makes Crouching Tiger look like a video game. The climactic battle is intimate, tough and very, very long in ethereal time: The season literally changes as two men fight, in part because blood always looks better on snow. But unlike Hero, there's not a drop of recognizable modern politics here, aside from the barest metaphor of the rulers and the ruled, so it doesn't leave you much to think about apart from the old tropes of love, honor, duty and so forth. This one, I think it's fair to say, is just for fun. In Mandarin, with subtitles.