The Eastern Promise for action movies, Zhang Yimou, maximised his potential for bringing the wushu genre to the mainstream, following up his Hero with this more intimate saga of ancient Chinese subterfuge, combat and tragic love, House Of Flying Daggers. Outwardly the plot is quite simple and straightforward. Whilst the Tang Dynasty faces the twilight of its reign, rebel groups plague the outlying regions of its power, testing its resilience. Two police captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are assigned to investigate one such faction, known as the House Of Flying Daggers - warriors who are able to wield and hurl blades with almost telepathic accuracy - and, if possible, capture its leader. Their suspicions are aroused by the arrival of a mysterious young dancer at the Peony Pavilion, a beautiful blind girl called Mei (Ziyi Zhang) and, together, they formulate a cunning plan.
“The Flying Daggers have many masters. Why would they send you as an assassin?”
“No-one sent me. I came alone.”
Yes, cunning is the operative word. For the film is set up with the intention of pulling the rug from under you as often as it can whilst you've been distracted by the plentiful battles amid picturesque scenery. Deception is the name of the game, and even if the film seems to cram in a couple of revelations too many before the end credits roll, the cumulative effect leaves the story with many layers and hidden agendas, which is nice in a genre that Hollywood likes to pigeon-hole as “chop-socky”. But fear not, I won't be divulging any of Yimou's secrets. Well ... not too many.
After Mei is arrested and faces the awful prospect of torture, Leo and Jin switch tactics and, in super-suave purple and black ninja-gear, Jin aids her escape in a superbly realised gaol-break in the hope that she will lead him to the hidden headquarters of the Flying Daggers. Of course, to lend credence to his role of turncoat saviour, Jin will have to fight off many pursuers ... pursuers who gradually become more determined to take down their own covert operative. Thus, nothing is as it seems and the story will pitch violently from twist to twist via misdirection and many surprising plot turns along the way.
The fighting is as balletic as the current crop of Wushu movies, such as the aforementioned Hero, but it packs in a lot more brutality too. Impacts are much more bone-crunching and there is more blood and physical wounding than you might have expected given some of the acrobatic offerings we've been treated to. Yimou has skirmishes that have throats opened up by flying daggers, wince-inducing snap-edits that depict toes rammed up under an opponent's chin with alarming vigour, elbows sledge-hammered into ribcages, bodies and heads viciously slammed by bamboo poles and spears and, in my favourite slice of bodily mayhem, a simply staggeringly hard headbutt to Jin's noggin that brought tears to my eyes let alone to his. The protracted set-tos are so intricately choreographed and so meticulously performed that they are mini-movies in their own right, encapsulating their episodic nature with immaculate timing and escalating satisfaction for carnage-junkies. Andy Lau and Ziyi Zhang's gravity-defying bout early on sets the tone for violence combined with elegance but, I have to admit, that some of their more acrobatic spins, leaps and pirouettes wear a lot of their fakery quite clearly on their captivatingly embroidered sleeves.
The mystical daggers, themselves, are a wondrous creation, evoking the mind, body and spiritual honing of martial arts skills into one awesome display of cunning and deadly aerobatics. They whiz through the air like miniature gleaming missiles, curving around the scenery with a sniper's accuracy and smart-bomb devastation. Watch out for the devious trick played with a double-dagger flinging and the exquisite rebound that one makes across a barricade of linked shields - daft but insanely inventive. Some of the CG employed is a little tacky, but these sky-slicers are still an admirable delight.
The famed Echo Game is a deliriously elaborate and altogether fantastical set-piece in which Leo tests the blind Mei's abilities by flicking beans at a huge semi-circle of upright drums, the resulting aural impact leaving the girl with a target to hit with the billowing sleeves of her costume. A visual and sonic treat, Yimou takes this stand-out sequence to truly outrageous extremes when Leo, amazed at Mei's athletic prowess and bat-like sensitivities, ups the ante by hurling an entire bowl of beans at the drums. With the tiny projectiles bouncing chaotically all around the mini-arena, the scene is set for a dazzling floor-dance as Ziyi Zhang cavorts, leaps and spirals in a whirlwind blitzkrieg to mimic all their mini-impacts. It is a classic scene that demands replaying time and time again.
Since Ziyi Zhang first slunk her way to Western attention in Ang Lee's celebrated, and still wonderful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she has grown in talent, beauty and sheer physical presence, coming to dominate the films she appears in and even to topline them. I quite freely concede that, for me, she can possibly do no wrong, possessing one of the most beautiful faces in cinema today - well, just behind our own Keira Knightley's, that is. Her, she delivers a performance that works on many levels. Having spent a number of weeks in the company of a real blind girl, she portrays her sightlessness with studied conviction, yet the effect is considerably heightened by her extraordinary prowess and all-too-knowing awareness of the environment around her. Gone is the minx-like air of arrogance from Crouching Tiger, replaced by a fragility that goes hand in hand with a cool sensuality and devastating fist-and-foot combination. When she breathes “Soldiers are approaching ...” she has the anxious look of a fox sensing danger, but the beauty of her own self-control soon takes over and her vulnerability is replaced with a keen, lightning-quick dynamism. She also brings a deep aura of fate to her role, tingeing every act and development of her character with a growing sense of doom, which keeps the film anchored on course to a destination we always think we can see coming ... but can't really.
Lau and Kaneshiro acquit themselves with distinction, too. We know that they can fight and provide a huge level of intensity to the physical side of their characters, but both supply a rich vein of emotion that brings their heroic roles into a sharper, more three-dimensional relief. Commencing the film as dedicated though somewhat casual warriors who can enjoy a good laugh before resuming their official duties, they proceed to tear away at the veneer of their personas until they have cut both Leo and Jin down to the bone. The age-old chestnut of a bitter love-triangle soon throws a spanner in the works and wreaks havoc with their mission, with the ethereal Mei placing daggers of her own deep into their smitten souls. Clandestine meetings pile on the intrigue, but when it comes to the crunch, the two have seemingly equal rights to come out on top, fighting from the heart rather than out of any last shred of nobility or honour. Wolfgang Petersen's Troy set two heroes against one another, leaving the audience in moral limbo as to whom they should really be rooting for and Yimou's film has us face a similar dilemma. Although, if anything, the motives are clearer here in Flying Daggers than in the disappointing Trojan epic, because what it always boils down to is love - and when that is the ultimate prize ... all bets are off.
“You shouldn't have come back.”
“I came back ... for you.”
Flying Daggers is an excellent film that manages to balance out the wild excesses of its action with some surprisingly effective moments of tranquillity, romance and pathos. The story fits right on in with the revitalised trend of Asian historical epics that bring in mistaken or assumed identities, convoluted relationships and a complex, but beguiling narrative that is keen to jettison conventional structure in favour of emotional resonance and a stylish episodic nature. Zhang Yimou has a fabulous eye for imagery and the components that he fits into the screen here are exemplary, striking and thoroughly memorable. Legolas may have become iconic as an expert arrow-slinger, but just watch as Jin fires bolt after bolt whilst on the run, or unleashes a multiple-shot bombardment through the trees. A terrific swordfight transforms into a vicious-but-graceful hand-to-hand brawl whilst the seasons change around the combatants, leaving them tussling in the blood-smeared snow. Soldiers as agile as monkeys flit from tree to tree, literally sailing across the forest canopy in pursuit of Mei, hurling javelins of bamboo as they go. No-one quite makes violence as poetic, nor as beautiful as Zhang Yimou. The icing on the cake is that he makes you care about the outcome as well.
House Of Flying Daggers gets a solid 8 out of 10 from me.
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