There we sit, gazing up at the screen expectantly, like kids being tucked in for the night. As the lights go down and our daily lives begin to drop away, we offer up a small prayer: Tell me a story.
(Or perhaps your prayers are a little more jaded, like the friend of mine who'd been burned once too often by bad movies. "Hope this doesn't suck," he'd sigh.)
House of Flying Daggers, I'm happy to report, doesn't suck. Ravishingly beautiful, rousingly told, House of Flying Daggers is the answer to a thousand prayers for a story that delivers us from our daily lives and at the same time illuminates and enriches them.
In fact, director Zhang Yimou gives us not one, but two stories, an exhilarating action film and a tale of star-crossed lovers. What's wondrous is how Yimou-the virtuoso director of such films as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and, most recently, Hero-uses the conventions of a martial arts film to heighten the emotions of his love story. Unabashedly melodramatic, intensely romantic, House of Flying Daggers is for all intents and purposes an opera, even if no one sings a note.
Set in 879 A.D. in Tang Dynasty China, the film takes its title from a mysterious band of rebels waging a guerilla war against the emperor and his corrupt government. Two army captains, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), are ordered to capture the rebel leader, whose identity is unknown. A tip sends them to a local brothel called the Peony Pavilion, where, it is rumored, a member of the Flying Daggers, a blind young woman named Mei (Ziyi Zhang), is working as a dancer.
The Peony Pavilion is the setting for the first of several dazzling set pieces that Yimou orchestrates. Leo challenges Mei to something called the Echo Game, in which the sightless dancer must anticipate Leo's moves and then match them, which she does with electrifying (not to mention gravity-defying) ease, stealing Leo's sword and nearly killing him with it.
After arresting Mei, Leo devises a scheme to find the rebel leader: Jin will "rescue" Mei from jail and then use her to lead him to the House of Flying Daggers. Sure thing, the swaggering Jin tells his friend. "You know I love flirting with girls."
That Jin has greatly underestimated both his assignment and his putative hostage soon becomes clear. It also becomes one of the film's themes, one that grows steadily in resonance as the pair plunge deep into the woods, pursued by soldiers unaware of Leo's scheme-and as Jin falls ever deeper in love with Mei. We enter into love, Yimou suggests, as we enter into battle, with little understanding of either the stakes or the possible outcomes. By the time Jin finally come face to face with the rebels, it is not a dagger's point but rather love that cuts this warrior to the quick.
Every element in House of Flying Daggers adds to its power: its exquisitely beautiful stars, its striking cinematography and most especially the martial arts sequences, which are like arias written in the air. Zhang Yimou puts emotional force into tour-de-force filmmaking.