Here's one word that sums up this film: Beauty. The plot of "House of Flying Daggers" (original title: "Shi mian mai fu") is lacking, but in a way it's made up for with the intoxicating sets, costumes, and exquisite love story. Zhang Yimou backs away from the grandeur of "Hero" in favor of a more intimate story.
It's 859 A.D., near the end of the corrupt Tang Dynasty. A guerilla rebellion called House of the Flying Daggers (who are able to throw knives at great distances) has sprung up against the government. Despite the loss of their leader, the rebels are thriving. Deputy Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) decides to go undercover to infiltrate the House, and he tries to get the trust of blind courtesan Mei (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of the House's dead leader.
But soon he begins to fall in love with Mei, which jeopardizes his loyalties while Mei herself is experiencing confusion. But government officials want Mei dead because of her sympathies -- and even worse, they don't realize that Jin is undercover. To make things worse, Jin is not the only rival for Mei's love -- his best friend is as well.
Director Zhang Yimou apparently said that "Hero" was the warm-up to "House of Flying Daggers." It does seem more polished and fully realized, without the "Rashomon" storytelling. Instead of a war movie, it's a mixture of fairy-tale romance and beauty, and spies and guerilla warfare. The final half-hour is the stumbling block, where some plot threads come unravelled. Things get pretty confusing, and.
Zhang doesn't drop the ball as far as stylism goes -- color and exquisite details are in every frame. They have an almost intoxicating effect, and so do the action sequences. One of the most memorable scenes is Ziyi performing the "echo game," where she strikes drums in a particular rhythm with her flowing clothing. Not to mention a balletic, dreamlike fight in a bamboo forest, with the participants soaring and dipping like Cirque de Soleil dancers. It's all completely unreal, but there lies its beauty, like a painting of the sky that focuses on the sun and not the clouds.
This is entirely Zhang Ziyi's picture -- since her debut in "The Road Home," Ziyi has proved herself a wonderful actress. "House of Flying Daggers" focuses mostly on Ziyi, and she gives a truly exquisite performance, particularly as a blind woman -- watch her face. The two supporting actors, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro, do a solid job in their roles, particularly Kaneshiro, who brings plenty of life to what could have been another cliched bad-cop-turned-lover.
"House of Flying Daggers" is worth seeing just to see -- it's visual ecstacy packed around a fairly typical love triangle plot and a slightly disappointing final half hour. But the sights alone in this intimate love story are exquisite.