House of Flying Daggers

Movie Information

Genre: Martial Arts Adventure
Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lay, Ziyi Zhang, Dandan Song
Rated: PG-13

Yes, this movie is stylish as all get out, and it features more than the requisite amount of astonishing martial arts derring-do and stupefying wire-work shenanigans. The settings are picturesque. The leads are appealing and attractive.

But anyone expecting a film on the level of the director’s last work, Hero, is bound to be pretty disappointed. And anyone who demands more from a film than endless battles against overwhelming odds, fought by fellows who scamper through tree tops, is in for a letdown.

Hero was a full-blown epic. This is a much smaller, and cheaper, work. While Hero boasted a fairly complicated plot and carefully drawn characters, this movie has a much more simplistic love-triangle story set against a political background. If these were operas, Flying Daggers would be Tristan and Isolde to Hero‘s Ring of the Nibelungen.

The comparison is apt, since both films are closer in spirit to opera than anything else; this one is especially so. The plot is little more than an excuse to get from one big scene to the next. It’s also absurdly melodramatic — and obviously leading toward a “stage” littered with corpses.

Mei (Ziyi Zhang, Hero) is an emissary from the House of Flying Daggers, a secret organization out to depose a corrupt emperor. Posing as a blind dancing girl in a brothel, she incites the lust of Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). His attempted rape gets them both arrested, but he’s actually a soldier of the emperor on a mission to get her to lead him to the House of Flying Daggers.

Don’t examine this part too closely, since, once they escape, the emperor’s troops seem determined to kill them off before they reach their destination, which seems counterproductive at the very least. Even marginal realism has been cast to the wind. It’s summer one moment, fall the next, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, winter; the seasons seem to depend on the dictates of the mood and the search for the next striking image.

The film works on its own terms, but it’s ultimately a little on the giggle-inducing side, especially by the time the secret identities get sorted out. Eventually, it’s hard not to expect at least one of them to turn toward the camera and announce, a la Eleanor Bron in Help!, “I am not what I seem.”

Logic is in short supply at every turn. When jealous lover and Flying Dagger mole Leo (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs) gets a flying dagger in the back for trying to force himself on Mei, he’s told to leave it there, the better to impress the emperor’s soldiers! The fellow redefines stoic.

All of this, however, pales in comparison to the ending, which is stone-faced serious, despite the plainly ridiculous spectacle of characters who keep dying and getting better, dying and … you get the idea. Visual splendor can carry a movie only so far. Rated PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts violence and some sexuality.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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