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.
One three-way blades-a-blazing battle lasts literally through several whole seasons -- metaphorically, perhaps, but it feels even longer than it looks, with the combatants literally dying several times, then getting back up to fight some more, giving the distinct impression that the movie may never end.
Set during the decline of the Tang dynasty, the film stars Zhang Ziyi as Mei, a member of the Flying Daggers, a secret sect of matriarchal revolutionaries that robs from the rich and corrupt to help the poor and fund their political cause. An almost supernaturally skilled fighter whose apparent blindness seems to only enhance her martial artistry, Mei works as a dancer of incredible precision at a magnificently ornate prostitution pavilion, where she comes under the scrutiny of the local law and is arrested after one of the movie's many tremendous-cum-tedious showdowns.
Helped to escape by Jin (Tom-Cruise-like Takeshi Taneshiro), a handsome police captain posing as a mercenary in the hopes she'll lead him to the rebel hideaway, the two instead fall in love over the course of several more fights -- which are staged by Jin's comrades to help him earn the girl's trust, but turn far more deadly because Mei has been sorely underestimated.
Even before the plot becomes laughably convoluted with double-agents, shifting loyalties and a love triangle, "Flying Daggers" is ridiculously self-serious for a movie in which the actors (and orchestra) are playing to the cheap seats with such syrupy, tearful romance (and violins) that the supposedly macho hero comes off as a namby-pamby when he puts down his sword.
Although "Flying Daggers" has its plusses (beautiful photography, spectacularly vibrant sets, brief moments of eye-popping inventiveness in each flamboyantly laborious fight scene) with its silly plot -- which makes even less sense in retrospect -- the picture would have been better, and far more honest, as a straight action movie, devoid of all the misplaced artistic aspiration.
Its best asset is, in fact, Mei's gimmicky blindness, which accounts for much of the choreographic creativity as well as the film's few authentic character moments. As she "sees" Jin for the first time after her rescue from prison, she doesn't feel his face until first exploring his hands and legs, to ascertain his character and aptitude as a fellow warrior.
Zhang Yimou's tireless devotion to "House of Flying Daggers" is readily apparent in its visual grandeur, if nothing else. But the same can certainly be said of the boldly stark yet richly colorful "Hero" (released two years ago in the rest of the world), which -- unlike this pompous, over-staged bore -- is arguably one of the most elegant and exhilarating martial arts films of all time.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th January 2005
Box Office USA: $10.9M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Beijing New Picture Film Co. Ltd.
Contactmusic.com: 1 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 147 Rotten: 20
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Zhang Yimou
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