House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou

I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, his follow-up to the acclaimed Hero (of which I’ve said a few good things), was one of my most anticipated movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Heck, it was one my most anticipated movies of this year, period. After seeing what Zhang Yimou with the wuxia genre in his previous film, I would’ve been excited to see his follow-up even if he had announced that Ekin Cheng was in the lead and that Wong Jing was co-directing.

I know you’re all eager for me to compare and contrast House of Flying Daggers to Hero. It’s basically impossible not to, because Zhang has taken the genre to new heights with these two films. But while both films are set in ancient China, have flying swordsman and stunning action sequences, and star Zhang Ziyi, the two films couldn’t be more different in many ways.

House of Flying Daggers is set near the end of the Tang Dynasty (ninth century AD, to be exact). The current government has grown weak and ineffective, and corruption has spread throughout the land. As a result, a number of rebellious gangs and factions have started popping up. The most powerful of these is the House of Flying Daggers, so named because of their distinct weapons. While the gang is renowned for their fighting skills, they’ve also earned the love of the people because their Robin Hood-like activities (you know, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor).

Rumors have recently surfaced that a new leader has assumed power within the House. Yet another rumor is that the previous leader’s daughter is now working, incognito, as a new dancer at The Peony Pavilion, a new upscale brothel. Hoping to use her to lead them to the new leader, two police deputies named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) hatch a plan. Jin poses as a customer and hires the new girl, a young blind woman named Mei (Zhang Ziyi), and then proceeds to try and rape her in a drunken state. Leo arrives and arrests them both, but not before Mei tries to kill him during an elaborate dance sequence that is more lavish than most of this year’s Hollywood epics combined.

Jin poses as a wandering swordsman named Wind and escapes from prison, taking Mei with him. However, things grow more complicated when Leo tells Jin that the region’s general has sent troops after them, and is unaware of the duo’s plans. And things grow even more complicated when Jin and Mei begin falling in love. Or do they? Does Mei know more than she lets on? Is she simply trying to seduce Jin into revealing the plot against the House? As the movie unfolds, nobody is what they seem, and loves and loyalties grow increasingly twisted and blurred. And over everything looms the final confrontation between the House and the general’s army.

Those going into House of Flying Daggers expecting more of the same high artiness that characterized Hero will probably be disappointed, as House of Flying Daggers is easily Zhang’s most commercial and mainstream movie yet, even more so than The Road Home. Zhang has gone on record with saying that he deliberately made it with Western audiences in mind. As a result, it’s nowhere near as abstract or politically charged as Hero. In other words, don’t expect critics to engage in heated debates over this movie’s political message.

However, House of Flying Daggers is every bit as lavish as Hero, and there are times when it even exceeds Hero in terms of visual spectacle. Emi Wada’s elaborate costumes are simply exquisite, especially the gowns Mei wears in the Peony Pavilion. Shigeru Umebayashi’s music may not be as epic as Tan Dun’s, but it still lends incredible, explosive energy to the film. Zhao Xiaoding’s cinematography is absolutely glorious — forests are captured in all of their autumnal finery, bamboo groves are painted in shades so green they’re unreal — and is more than a match for Christopher Doyle’s work on Hero. And finally, Ching Siu-Ting’s action choreography is often more playful and wowie-zowie than his work in Hero, delivering several sequences that had the audience cheering.

In order to test her skills as a dancer, Leo has Mei perform the ​“Echo Dance” in which Leo tosses small beans at a series of drums arranged around the room. Mei hits each one in response with her garment’s silken sleeves before using them to grab Leo’s sword in an assassination attempt. When several guards attack Mei during their escape, Jin takes them out with arrows so skillfully as to make Legolas want to hang up his quiver for good. And the storied bamboo forest scene, an homage of sorts to King Hu’s landmark A Touch of Zen, is almost surreal as soldiers soar through the leaves and slide down the stalks.

Of course, visual spectacle still needs to have a story and characters, and House of Flying Daggers delivers in this area as well. A far cry from the stoic warriors of Hero, the characters of House of Flying Daggers are far more emotional. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Takeshi Kaneshiro that carries the movie. I’ve long been a fan of Kaneshiro’s movies, ever since his work with Wong Kar-Wai on Chungking Express, and he delivers a very strong performance here as the carefree-yet-tortured Jin. Zhang Ziyi delivers as well, hopefully silencing some of her Hero critics; even so, it’s once again another performance in which her silken robes get torn to shreds and tears slide down her porcelain cheeks (shades of Musa and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Andy Lau is also solid, though his role is far less central than the other two leads.

Unfortunately, for all of the heights the film reaches, it stumbles quite a bit in the final 20 minutes or so. Although the film had been heading for a fairly tragic conclusion, Zhang Yimou decided, for whatever reason, to pull all of the stops for the grand finale. As a result, the ending has an operatic tone that feels wildly uneven, turning what could be a fairly heart-wrenching conclusion into something more surreal, and even comical (emotional moments were met with a fair amount of giggles at the screening I attended). Because of that, I’d have to say that Hero is the all-around more solid movie. But House of Flying Daggers has moments of brilliance that are simply unmatched.

Previously, Zhang had stated that House of Flying Daggers would be his last wuxia movie, something that saddened me. Considering the strength and beauty of his last two films, and how much artfulness he brought to a genre that has seen more than its fair share of lackluster pictures, I certainly hoped to see a couple more genre films from the man. Thankfully, however, Zhang has recently announced that he is, indeed, planning to make a third wuxia movie following the completion of his next film. This bodes quite well for wuxia and martial arts fans, as I’m sure we can expect to see yet another awesome spectacle from the man.