*House of Flying Daggers (PG-13)
Sony Pictures Classics
The West's longstanding love affair with violent Asian cinema has grown exponentially in recent years. Witness the success of the martial arts-infused Matrix series and Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's homage to the Far East. Most action directors nowadays take at least some of their cues from Hong Kong director John Woo and his poetic gangster films such as The Killer.
Starting in 2000, with the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by director Ang Lee, films direct from Asia began moving away from the art-house circuit in the West and into the blockbuster category. House of Flying Daggers, a companion film to last year's hit movie Hero -- both by director Zhang Yimou -- capitalizes fully on this market for direct imports.
Daggers is filled with such beautiful action and visual poetry that most viewers will not mind reading subtitles (the film is presented in its original Mandarin Chinese). The lush sets and majestic natural views swirling around the characters, combined with admirably authentic computer-animated flying daggers, bring the viewer into a world of gorgeous unrest.
The story takes place in medieval China during a time when the once-beneficent Tang Dynasty had grown venal and corrupt. A rash of popular gangs has arisen to wrest power from incompetent rulers, the most shadowy and effective of these groups was the House of Flying Daggers.
Two army captains Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Hong Kong heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro) receive word that one of the dagger clan's deadliest assassins has taken a job as a dancer at a local brothel.
Posing as a rich loafer, Jin enters the brothel's stunningly multicolored chamber and begins to play drinking games with some of the girls. After he's solidly drunk, or pretending to be drunk, he pays to see the new girl. Into the room steps Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a girl he's told is blind.
Zhang is without question one of the most beautiful female actors in today's cinema. Her delicately sculpted face, shown in close-up after close up, never loses its entrancing quality. She spent two months living with a blind girl preparing for this role, and has trained in dancing since age 11. Here we see her take on a much more satisfying role than the simpering lackey she played in Hero.
After the pair of captains arrest Mei and place her in a stockade, Leo devises a plot to undermine the Dagger clan. He asks Jin to pretend to free Mei and lead her to safety so the army can ambush the rebels.
Jin agrees, and after he rescues Mei they head into the countryside with the army quick on their heels. It's in the ensuing battle scenes and natural settings that director Yimou really sets himself apart: the forests, lakes, meadows and bamboo groves are naturalistic and beautifully photographed, and the action is thrilling.
Problems arise when it becomes clear that both Leo and Mei conceal much about their true identity, and that Jin's deepening love for Mei puts everyone at risk. Here the movie strives for haunting poignancy, the kind perfected by Crouching Tiger, but falls into standard soap opera fare. Still, the final battle scene, involving a dramatic and symbolic shift of the weather, is as breathtaking as the rest of this visual tour de force.
If not completely satisfying in terms of story, this strikingly attractive film deserves to be seen on the big screen where it can be fully appreciated. And if the East-to-West trend continues, this is just a taste of what's to come.
-- Dan Wilcock
Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown