4 stars (out of 4)
The best movies are those that open up the heart and stimulate the mind. But what about movies like Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers," which knock your eyes out and set your pulse and senses on fire? "Daggers" is a lavish Chinese period martial-arts epic, done with staggering physical excitement and visual splendor, a love triangle embedded in a Hong Kong-style movie, complete with battles in bamboo forests, soaring sword-slashing duelists and a fairy-tale air of gorgeous madness and adventure.
It's as thrilling and lushly beautiful a movie as has been released all year, matched only by Zhang's epic "Hero." And I think this film is the more powerful.
That's because "House," set in the waning years of the Tang Dynasty (859 A.D.), is as much romance as action epic: a drama focusing on the tragic triangle of two cops or imperial captains--Andy Lau as stoic Leo and Takeshi Kaneshiro as dashing Jin--and a beautiful blind dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who works at the local bordello and is jailed because she may be a revolutionary bandit. Jin is ordered to help Mei break out of jail and then keep tabs on (or seduce) her, Leo to follow them, and warriors from both sides trail them all.
The erotic angle charges the action scenes with an operatic intensity. From the first bordello scenes, where Jin meets Mei, to the breathtaking climax, shot above black trees in a vast, snow-covered field where the three lovers circle each other, "House" achieves a mixture of beauty and violence, tenderness and brutality. But it has a core of reality beneath its fantastic surface.
The story is set in a time of chaos and crumbling order, with a corrupt imperial government besieged by bandit gangs, among them the House of Flying Daggers, a Robin Hood-style outfit trying to crush evil landowners and redistribute wealth.
Jin and Leo have been ordered to infiltrate the House, using Mei as entry. But soon it becomes obvious that the plot is more devious and characters more conflicted. As Jin and Mei fall in love and as soldiers from both sides close in, Zhang focuses, as he often has, on the spectacle of erotic love battering against the walls of society, blazing out gloriously as darkness descends.
The three central actors are all physically stunning, in athletics as well as looks--and that's crucial to the overall effect. (The only other major role is the bordello's shrewd madam, Yee, played by Song Dandan.) They're also superb actors as well. Ziyi shows here the same tigerish beauty she flashed as the kung-fu girl of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," while also suggesting a lover on the edge.
Their physical beauty keys and justifies the story. Jin and Mei fall in love, madly and forever, in barely a day. Leo is just as smitten. Even though the cops first show a certain hardboiled cynicism, all three are ready to kill or die for love. And we can believe it, because they can all set the screen on fire.
The fight scenes in "House" are like the great dance duets by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. They express passion through movement, desire through agility, and they sweep us away. There is a psychological underpinning to "House," but it's wrapped in such fantastic encasement that we can easily accept greater and greater extremes of behavior, just as we can accept outrageous physical stunts--from "blind" Mei's impossible scarf-gong echo dance to the increasingly high-flying, one-against-a-horde fights, with warriors dancing in the trees and the camera seeming to whip along on an arrow's back.
Zhang, who made "Hero" from the same legend about the first Chinese emperor and his would-be killers in Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin," gave "Hero" psychological undercurrents. In "House," he goes further. The movie seethes with sexuality, throbs with tension and angst, just as Zhang's early films "Red Sorghum" and "Raise the Red Lantern" did. But the fight scenes--all choreographed and shot by the great fight director Tony Ching Siu-tung ("A Chinese Ghost Story")--amplify that emotion. It's as if we'd been transported not into the past but to an alternate world, where desire and realization are almost simultaneous, where the subconscious keeps exploding to the surface.
You can't really say you've never seen anything like this before, because there's "Hero" and all the Hong Kong martial arts epics that inspired it. But, just as "An American in Paris" and "Singin' in the Rain" carried Hollywood musicals to new heights, these two Zhang-Ching movies do to the same for the Chinese period action epic. They make it sing, slash, soar through the skies.
"House of Flying Daggers"
Directed by Zhang Yimou; written by Li Feng, Zhang, Wang Bin; photographed by Zhao Xiaoding; edited by Cheng Long; production designed by Huo Tingxiao; costumes designed by Emi Wada; music by Shigeru Umebayashi (theme song, "Lovers", sung by Kathleen Battle); action director, Tony Ching Siu-Tung; martial arts coordinator Li Cai; dance choreographer Zhang Jianmin; produced by Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou. In Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: PG-13 (For sequences of stylized martial arts violence and some sexuality.)
Jin - Takeshi Kaneshiro
Leo - Andy Lau
Mei - Zhang Ziyi
Yee - Song Dandan