Dir: Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou’s Hero may have promised wuxia and delivered it in a Rashomon-style vehicle, but his follow up, House of Flying Daggers, is something different altogether: a classic love triangle playing itself out in a world of the Law and a band of secret rebels who plan to overthrow it (the titular House being the rebels’ HQ).
Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro play Leo and Jin, policemen who go undercover to arrest a suspected member of the Flying Daggers, played by Zhang Ziyi, who is incognito as a blind dancer at the local Peony Pavilion brothel. These opening scenes, as Ziyi’s Mei is put to the test by Leo, mark the film as a thing of beauty, as it trades in “Hero’s” solid colors for extravagant, finely detailed silks of many colors and patterns. After her arrest, Jin breaks Mei out of jail and flees with her to the north, hoping she will take him to the group’s hideout. Being undercover means Jin has to fight alongside Mei, even when his fellow officers, not knowing who Jin is, attack. And of course, meanwhile Jin is falling in love with Mei (when it’s Zhang Ziyi, who can blame him?) while only pretending to do so for the sake of his cover. There are more twists and turns to come, and the film is so pure in its story (Salon rightly compared it to silent film and opera), that they still surprise.
The action sequences are finally, truly breathtaking, instead of us wanting them to be so (as in Hero). Jin undertakes some archery skills that would put Legolas to shame (with a motion technique that Peter Jackson would love), and the Flying Daggers get their due as well. Adding to all this is the excellent sound design: for a fight in a bamboo forest (a wuxia staple), Yimou drops out all the music and leaves just the strange sounds of bamboo, which are after all a forest of hollow tubes. A good 5.1 system should be required to appreciate what is done here.
Yet it’s not all flash. In the center is a true romantic tale, free of irony, which few directors would get near in the west. Love is suffering, as my wife likes to remind me (physically sometimes). Yes, there’s princesses and such in sword’n’sorcery tales here, but they’re the prizes to be won after the battle, not the causes of the battle themselves. Plus, Zhang Ziyi’s Mei can do fine by herself, thank you, if you give her some daggers. Andy Lau, who I’ve never particularly liked as an actor is really good here too, with all his character’s repressed pain returning in the very last reel. Of course, maybe it takes a director like Zhang to bring out a good performance in Lau.
There was a period (“Not One Less”) where I really thought Zhang Yimou had lost it as a director, and who’s string of mediocre films were approaching than of his contemporary Chen Kaige. But fortune’s wheel had turned again, and he’s come back, in a surprising different style, perhaps, but he’s rediscovered the emotional power of his earlier work.
Dir: Zhang Yimou