How the same talented director (Zhang Yimou of "The Road Home" and "Raise the Red Lantern"), working with the same talented actress (lovely Zhang Ziyi of "The Road Home" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") could turn out one of the year's best movies and one its worst -- in the same genre no less -- is a complete mystery. But that's exactly what has happened with a pair of handsomely grandiose martial arts films set in ancient China.
Last summer's "Hero," starring Jet Li as an assassin locked in unblinking intellectual combat with the king he's come to kill, is an imaginatively allegorical, action-packed but understated, brilliant historical epic (in which Zhang Ziyi plays another assassin's apprentice). Pure in vision and bold in execution, it uses real events as a momentous backdrop for jaw-dropping scenes of graceful, physics-defying swordfights, each of which has an increasingly profound consequence on the future of the whole Chinese nation.
But "House of Flying Daggers" is the polar opposite: an outsized and endlessly pretentious romantic melodrama, also about assassins, in which the director has clearly lost any sense of moderation or self-discipline. Every overly polished moment of visual refinement is dragged out to the point of absurdity. Every hint of emotion becomes an excuse for floodgate histrionics. Each swordfight (or combat of any kind) slowly, slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y builds past an initial stage of breathtaking stylishness into a protracted mockery of itself. It's the snooty, art-house equivalent of a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie.
Continue reading: House Of Flying Daggers Review