House of Flying Daggers

Even more so than his brilliant Hero, Zhang Yimou’s latest is “a love story wrapped inside of an action film”. While it does feature some of the best martial arts sequences I’ve ever seen, all the battle and intrigue are secondary to the passionate emotional journey the characters go through. The fight scenes are symbolic, basically. Whereas in an Hollywood romance, obstacles would be something like the guy’s ex popping in and making the girl get jealous and leave, here the lovers are attacked by 30 guards with swords!

“House of Flying Daggers” is an exhilarating pas de deux between two wonderful performers, Zhang Zhiyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro. They’re both beautiful and in extraordinary control of their bodies, and there’s intense erotic tension between them all through the film, whether they’re fighting or making out. Making things more complicated is that each of them claims to be someone they are not. Jin is an Imperial soldier pretending to be a masterless ninja, while Mei is a blind dancer in a brothel who is secretly the daughter of the recently assassinated rebel leader of the Flying Daggers.

Their relationship keeps heating up from their rocky meeting in the brothel to their journey through the woods towards the secret headquarters of the Flying Daggers. Passion is often stronger than reason, but they must always question whether the other one is being sincere or if seduction is just another form of deceit. And when they finally reach the House of the Flying Daggers, it becomes even more difficult to sort out their feelings as they must face new revelations, hard decisions and the introduction of a third player into their game of love.

So “House of Flying Daggers” is a heartbreaking story, but it’s also full of beauty. The beauty of the incredibly colorful costumes. The beauty of nature as it magically goes from spring to summer, fall and winter over only three days. The beauty of the human body, capable of grace and sensuality one instant, lethal force the next.

I doubted the martial arts sequences in “Hero” could be topped, but Zhang Yimou does just that here. Each action scene is more exciting and gorgeously crafted than the one before, up until the absolutely breathtaking showdown in the bamboo forest, which unfolds simultaneously on the ground and high up on the bamboo. The climactic duel isn’t as elaborate (though I do love the way a lady, snow and blood play against each other), but it powerfully brings the tale to a close.

Here’s a film that oddly pleases two very different sides of my cinematic sensibility, the action-loving geek and the hopelessly romantic dreamer. Yimou’s camera can zoom through trees along with an arrow, but it can also stop and take the time to capture a tear rolling down a cheek.