Miramax strangely shelved Zhang Yimou’s previous film, Hero, for two years even though it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film for 2002. One possible explanation might be that Miramax head Harvey Weinstein was afraid of martial arts overload after the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but this past August, Hero finally opened to blockbuster business in the U.S., a rare feat for a foreign-language film. Unlike Miramax, Sony Picture Classics is willing to test how much audiences crave the martial arts genre by releasing Zhang’s latest movie, House of Flying Daggers a few scant months after Hero.
House of Flying Daggers doesn’t match up to its predecessor. Zhang packs the movie with a good deal more action, but on a formal scale, its aesthetic accomplishments are far less. On the one hand, Daggers incorporates CGI to better use than the millions of cascading arrows in Hero. The flying daggers of the title come at their prey like diving metallic hawks, utterly ruthless in their lust for blood. However, the overall look of the movie, too obviously artificial in computer enhancement, pales in comparison to Hero’s color-coded magnificence.
The story takes in the year 859 A.D., a period of weak and corrupt government. The House of Flying Daggers, a Robin Hood-like group that strike at the rich to help the poor, has risen in rebellion. Two soldiers representing the ruling Tang Dynasty, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), attempt to uncover a subversive agent hiding out in a brothel. This woman, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), is apparently the blind daughter of the recently assassinated leader of The House of Flying Daggers. When Mei is imprisoned, Jin frees her and pretends to want to help her, hoping all the while that she will lead him to the underground group. What he doesn’t count on is their falling in love. Will Jin betray his friend Leo for Mei or will Mei betray the Daggers for Jin? Or is nothing as it seems?
In what amounts to a grand fumble, Zhang and his co-writers, Feng Li and Bin Wang, engage in one of those all-too popular twists in postmodern cinema that makes you re-evaluate everything that came before. The first half is one long riveting chase sequence generating the excitement of an old fashioned Shaw Brothers picture. Then comes the horribly inadvisable twist, followed by a second half that is one long melodramatic groan. Even the ultimate conflict promised by the film’s initial premise goes unfulfilled.
It is difficult to imagine that this is the same filmmaker who fashioned anti-authoritarian tracts like Ju Dou or To Live giving Chinese government officials conniptions. In Hero, Zhang apparently endorses Machiavellian methods by the state. In Daggers, he equivocates the ruthlessness of the government and the rebels alike in their willingness to sacrifice their soldiers. Not that Zhang’s films ever worked that well when they were so obviously didactic (Red Sorghum and Not One Less excepted), but his emphasis now is almost wholly style over substance. Or maybe Zhang really does expect his audience to take this love story seriously. Given his presentation though, it’s hard to take it as anything but unintended camp.
The actors are moderately more successful. Andy Lau, one of Hong Kong’s top actors and pop stars, works better here and in the recent Infernal Affairs, than he has in a long time. In the past, he seemed too protective of his roles, always protruding a domineering, unruffled, and thus dull, persona, but lately, he has been willing to look less glamorous and play the villain. The half-Japanese Takeshi Kaneshiro is an anachronism in looks and his more modern acting style, but he works adequately as a foil to his somber friend. Zhang Ziyi should be able to do this part in her sleep by now, and maybe she did. She’s more pristine doll than human here.
One good reason to see the film is the action. After some years in the cinematic wilderness, action choreographer and one-time director himself, Ching Siu-Tung has returned to form here and in Hero. If the box office demonstrates that Sony Picture Classics was prescient investing in this release, it’ll be more due to Ching than Zhang.