For the second time this year, American audiences are being treated to a martial arts epic by the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. But where Hero was a perfect title for a movie about a courageous warrior's quest for vengeance, the title of the new film, House of Flying Daggers, is misleading. In Japan, it is more appropriately titled The Lovers. Daggers is a more colorful choice, but The Lovers correctly identifies the focus of the film.
Set during the Tang dynasty, 859 A.D, Daggers follows the rapidly accelerating romance between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police deputy in service of the emperor, and Mei (Hero's Zhang Ziyi), a woman who belongs to an undercover resistance effort called House of Flying Daggers, a group of powerful warriors who, like the famous "Merry Men," steal from the rich and give to the poor.
Jin first encounters Mei while investigating rumors that a brothel called Peony Pavilion is harboring a Flying Daggers agent. Enthusiastic about his assignment, he poses as a customer and teases the beautiful courtesans until they introduce him to "the new girl." He's astonished by Mei's beauty, but even more so by the fact that she is blind.
Overcome with lust, Jin nearly rapes Mei right there in full view of everyone, and he has to be apprehended by his superior officer, Leo (Andy Lau), who proceeds to test Mei himself. What follows is one of several applause-worthy sequences—a dance challenge called "the Echo Game" that might as well be titled "Dance of the Very Long Sleeves." Mei may be blind, but her hearing, her intuition, and her dancing are almost superhuman.
But her beauty may be her strongest weapon. It inspires a rescue that enables her to flee into the wilderness with an unlikely companion—Jin. Infatuated, Jin declares that he's abandoning his post in order to join the Flying Daggers. Forget about his police duties—Jin calls himself "the Wind" because he likes to live free of any binding commitments. Hoping to shape him into a more suitable suitor, Mei quips, "I want the wind to stop and think."
Mei's gravity-defying talents are not limited to dancing. Her pursuers quickly learn that they're no match for the blind warrior. But as Jin and Mei fight their way out of close calls, we're led to wonder if she's being deceived. Is Jin being honest about his love? Or is he a liar and an opportunist?
Daggers' battle scenes, like Hero's, are beautifully choreographed—they almost qualify as dances—and exquisitely filmed by Zhao Xiaoding. The Peony Pavilion is as ornate as a palace, the opulence distracting us from the action in the foreground. Later, the flirtatious fugitives are surrounded by sword-bearing soldiers in a field full of yellow flowers. At times, there's a comic book quality to the combat: daggers and arrows move as smartly as heat-seeking missiles. A conflict in a forest concludes with the most thrilling exhibition of archery since Legolas pincushioned the orcs in The Fellowship of the Ring. The most awe-inspiring sequence takes place in a patch of sky-high bamboo—the camera gazes up at a shadowy army leaping through the branches of a green ceiling, the soldiers hurling sharpened bamboo spears which whistle like flutes as they descend toward their targets. The climactic battle takes place in snow that wipes detail from the screen, so that a single drop of red blood, echoing the single drop of red ink that opens the film, is shocking.
The awe-inspiring visual experience of House of Flying Daggers is almost a match for its predecessor. Hero looked as though it would stand as the pinnacle of the wuxia genre for years to come. But here, the director has risen to challenge his own standard-setting work. Viewers will argue over which film is superior.
They differ in many ways. Shigeru Umebayashi's Daggers score is more beautiful and melodramatic than Tan Dun's Hero soundtrack. Whereas Hero's special effects were seamless, Daggers' digital animation is obvious and at times distracting. This is a tale told in close-ups; Hero tended toward vast panoramic scenes. Hero's dialogue was heavy and solemn, but this script, co-written with Yimou by Li Feng and Wang Bin, boasts some witty banter between "the lovers," who tease and test each other with lines as sharp as their weapons.
But they have many similar elements as well—melodrama, lust, betrayal, swords, arrows, and beautiful environments that change their colors in synchronicity with the changing emotions and experiences of the characters. Like Hero, Daggers would be an overwhelming experience even without its characters and plot; the backdrops are enough to convince audiences to plan their next vacation in China.
The cast, just as impressive as Hero's, develops memorable chemistry. Zhang Ziyi delivers her greatest performance. While she still lacks the nuance and complexity of the director's most famous leading lady, Gong Li (To Live, Raise the Red Lantern), audiences will be spellbound by her beauty and the way she confidently shifts between acrobatic combat and delicate love scenes. She steams up the screen with Takeshi Kaneshiro on more than one occasion without any nudity or unnecessarily explicit behavior. She's secretive and mysterious, starkly contrasting her pursuer's playfulness and reckless emotion. Andy Lau makes Jin's superior officer a memorably dour and determined character, authoritative at the beginning and unhinged at the end.
The narrative, like Hero's, leads us to confounding surprises. (If you want to be surprised, avoid other reviews!) The first and best surprise occurs two-thirds of the way through the film. For a moment, the story has an opportunity to become a triumph of true love over the glorified infatuation that passes for love in its earlier chapters.
But Zhang Yimou has something more complex in mind. This is not a simple morality play, but rather a film that ends with questions about the warring inclinations of the human heart. Is the impetuous love of youth, which breaks rules, seizes the day, and indulges in life's pleasures, stronger and more valuable than the steadfast love of maturity, which favors trust, duty, responsibility, and fidelity?
Alas, this conflict between two sides—hormones without integrity, and commitment without compassion—seems irreconcilable. Women are portrayed as fickle and manipulative; men are proud and possessive. While Hero troubled American audiences by its seeming-glorification of Chinese Imperialism, Daggers will make viewers squirm with repeated scenes in which Mei is the victim of severe sexual advances. There's more emphasis on the sex drive than the drive for a communion of minds and hearts. The story offers us no example to suggest that love can be both spirited and faithful, enraptured and disciplined. By the end of the film, we no longer know where to place our sympathies.
Nevertheless, discerning viewers are likely to more reason to praise Zhang Yimou than to punish him. As in Hero and 2004's other beautiful-but-flawed epic, A Very Long Engagement, the achievement of visual splendor will outweigh the narrative's missteps. Storytelling is just one aspect of what cinema has to offer. Beauty is a powerful gift as well, and Zhang Yimou's exhilarating imagination is reason enough for most moviegoers to get in line for House of Flying Daggers. His narrative may never apprehend what true love is all about, but those who discuss these characters and their motivations may learn a thing or two from observing what true love is not.
Photos © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.Discussion starters
- What do we learn about the Chinese emperor during the period of this film? Does it present him as worthy of the characters' allegiance? Or are we led to sympathize with the members of the House of Flying Daggers?
- Which character in this film comes the closest to understanding true love?
- What is Jin's personal philosophy? Why does he call himself "the Wind"? What are the strengths and weaknesses of his way of living? Is he capable of true love? What would he need to learn in order to make a good husband?
- What kind of a person is Mei? Is she honorable? Is she trustworthy? What is her idea of true love? Discuss her decision near the end of the film regarding Jin. Is this the right decision?
- Consider the film's shocking conclusion. How might this ending have been avoided? Where might the characters have made better decisions to avoid that final showdown?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
House of Flying Daggers is rated PG-13 for some harsh language, sexual references and intense, even violent, sexual advances, as well as some martial arts sequences that come to bloodshed.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreetfrom Film Forum, 12/09/04
House of Flying Daggers as spectacular to watch as Hero
For the second time this year, American audiences are being treated to a martial arts epic by the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero).
Set during the Tang dynasty, 859 A.D, House of FlyingDaggers follows the rapidly accelerating romance between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police deputy in service of the emperor, and Mei (Hero's Zhang Ziyi), a woman who belongs to an undercover resistance effort, a group of powerful warriors who steal from the rich and give to the poor. When Jin pretends to abandon his police duties, rescuing Mei from her pursuers, he begins the long journey into the wilderness, following her in hopes of discovering the headquarters of the rebellion. But the closer he gets to the secret, the more he struggles with his deception and finds himself falling in love with this beautiful, acrobatic, death-defying agent.
The story is full of unexpected twists and surprises, and the battle scenes are among the most exhilarating ever filmed—choreographed in such a way so that they have as much in common with dance as they do with combat. But the storytelling stumbles, especially in the last act, when the characters begin to behave in increasingly selfish ways, spoiling any sympathy we have for them.
As in Hero, the achievement of visual splendor will outweigh the narrative's missteps. Storytelling is just one aspect of what cinema has to offer. Beauty is a powerful gift as well, and Zhang Yimou's exhilarating imagination is reason enough for most moviegoers to get in line for House of Flying Daggers. My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Zhang Yimou's kung fu saga echoes the cinematic bravura of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as Yimou's own Oscar-nominated Hero and explores universal themes of passion, jealousy, vengeance, and the timeless conflict between love and duty. The story sometimes gets drowned out by the swirl of steel and silk. However, the characters and their dilemmas d'amour are interesting enough to keep viewers engaged in the story during breaks in the eye-popping action."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says it's "reasonably diverting, sometimes hauntingly beautiful, until the catastrophically misconceived final act, at which point it goes spectacularly off the rails. Zhang has created some of the most overwhelmingly beautiful action sequences ever filmed. Yet while Crouching Tiger had characters and relationships one could care about to the end, and Hero offered a compelling exploration of Chinese sensibilities and moral affections, House leaves me finally without anyone or anything to care about."
Many mainstream critics are praising this film as one of the year's best.from Film Forum, 12/23/04
Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "House of Flying Daggers, while certainly a commendable film, may be a minor disappointment to fans of Hero. Although just as beautiful, the story doesn't carry the same vast sweep that is found in Hero. The film also fails to follow all of the story lines to conclusion. But … it still manages to speak to us of the power of love that leads us to great sacrifice."from Film Forum, 01/27/05
Josh Hurst (Reveal) writes, "Regardless of what you think about the film's morality, there's no denying that, technically, the movie is astonishing. Like Hero, it is an overwhelming achievement in cinematography, an unforgettable feast of color and light. And nobody films a fight sequence like Yimou does; indeed, House of Flying Daggers' kung fu confrontations are so beautifully choreographed that they often feel more like dances. Whatever you call 'em, they completely outshine comparable scenes in The Matrix, or in just about any other martial arts movie, for that matter."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more