December 3, 2004 E-mail story   Print  


'House of Flying Daggers'

Stylish and sweeping, the romantic epic packs in plenty of martial arts action but touches the heart and mind too.
'House of Flying Daggers'
(Bai Xiao Yan / Sony Pictures Classics)

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By Kevin Thomas, Times Staff Writer

Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers" finds the great Chinese director at his most romantic in this thrilling martial arts epic that involves a conflict between love and duty carried out to its fullest expression.

It stars the exquisite Ziyi Zhang and the handsome Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, who are as glamorous as vintage Hollywood stars but who are also accomplished actors and splendid action performers. Gorgeous period sets and costumes, natural locales, terrific martial arts set pieces, ravishing color camerawork and an appropriately stirring score all contribute strongly to a grand, sweeping entertainment that is also reflective and poignant.

By 859 AD, the Tang Dynasty had lapsed into such a state of corruption that unrest throughout the land had led to the formation of many rebel armies. The largest and most powerful is known as the House of Flying Daggers, which steals from the rich to give to the poor. Its secret base is in the county of Feng Tian, close to the imperial capital. Local deputies have succeeded in killing the Flying Daggers leader, but his house still thrives, growing stronger under an unknown new leader. Two captains, Jin (Kaneshiro) and Leo (Lau) have been given 10 days in which to capture the elusive new leader.

Acting on a tip, Capt. Leo sends Jin to the Peony Pavilion, an opulent brothel, to seek out a new dancer rumored to be a member of the Flying Daggers. She turns out to be Ziyi's blind and beguiling Mei, who in the first of the film's dazzling set pieces performs the immensely difficult Echo Dance.

Surrounded by a wide circle of drums, Mei must strike the drum to which Jin has tossed a pebble. The upshot is her declaration of allegiance to the Flying Daggers, followed by a duel with Jin, in which she is defeated. Believing her to be the daughter of the House's dead leader, Leo and Jin decide that Jin should pretend to be "Wind," a lone warrior who rescues her from prison and escorts her to the Flying Daggers' secret headquarters. Unbeknownst to Jin, Leo has ordered up a large contingent of soldiers to pursue them.

"House of Flying Daggers" now gets underway in earnest, with Mei ever so warily falling in love with Jin and he with her even more tentatively. Their gradual, reluctant building of mutual trust strengthens their love, which will be tested in their dangerous, adventure-filled trek through wilderness and snow-covered landscapes. In one breathtaking sequence, the couple ward off an ambush in a bamboo forest in which the very trees become spears.

In daring to tell his story at a leisurely pace, despite bravura martial arts displays, Zhang lays the foundation for a climactic sequence charged with surprise and heart-wrenching irony. Jin and Mei are memorable lovers, and Zhang reveals bold finesse at pulling off an emotion-charged epic of style and sophistication that is exciting and at times humorous.

'House of Flying Daggers'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts violence and some sexuality

Times guidelines: Violence standard for the genre; brief sexuality

Ziyi Zhang...Mei

Takeshi Kaneshiro...Jin

Andy Lau...Leo

Song Dandan...Yee

A Sony Pictures Classics release of an Elite Group Enterprises presentation of an Edko Films and Zhang Yimou Studio production in association with the Beijing New Picture Film Co. Director Zhang Yimou. Producers Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou. Executive producer Zhang Weiping. Screenplay and story by Zhang Yimou, Lin Feng, Wang Bin. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding. Editor Cheng Long. Music Shigeru Umebayashi. Costumes Emi Wada. Production designer Huo Tingxiao. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. At selected theaters.