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During the reign of the Tang dynasty in China, a secret organization called "The House of the Flying Daggers" rises and opposes the government. A police officer called Leo sends officer Jin to investigate a young dancer named Mei, claiming that she has ties to the "Flying Daggers". Leo arrests Mei, only to have Jin breaking her free in a plot to gain her trust and lead the police to the new leader of the secret organization. But things are far more complicated than they seem... Written by
Chris Makrozahopoulos <email@example.com>
Zhang Yimou set a new benchmark for martial arts movies with Hero. Visually both inventive and dazzling, whilst having a strong thematic thread, it still managed to kick ass, with energetic fight sequences. He continues in the same vein with House of Flying Daggers, with love and romance replacing Hero's chivalry and honour. It is at times as blisteringly exciting and exquisite to view, but there are a few problems.
Set in a similar time to Hero, the plot revolves around the mysterious House of Flying Daggers, a group of assassins leading a rebellion of sorts, against the rulers of their land. News has reached the local military captain Leo (Andy Lau) that the leader of the House can be found plying their trade in the local brothel. Sensing that this could be the key to ending their resistance he sends one of his men, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), to infiltrate the establishment posing as a customer. This soon leads him to the beautiful blind dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who may just be the daughter of the assassinated former leader of the House. What follows is his journey with edit her, through forests and meadows, as he vies to gain her trust, all the while intent on leading the army to their destination in an attempt to discover the leader of the House.
The plot is actually far more complicated than my short synopsis could come close to. We are treated to a twisty turny adventure, punctuated with set pieces of (excuse the tired terminology) balletic grace. Yimou sets a number of scenes within symmetrically perfect backgrounds, the picture set up like a work of art. We find ourselves in a dance hall encircled with drums, where the camera moves with a sense of fluidity, as though part of the dance, as we see Mei play a game of "echoes" with the Captain. Each time he hits a drum with a flicked nut, she follows, striking it with her flowing robes. The scene has a steady tempo, finally hitting a crescendo as the whole bowl is flung, nuts flying everywhere like missiles striking every drum. The sound of each strike reverberates like thunder.
For me the other set pieces never quite match the "echo" dance for majesty, rhythm or look. We get to see numerous showdowns between, with Mei and Jin taking on the soldiers that chase them, all the while with Jin trying to maintain his cover. The fights very much feel like a dance, and are filled with POV shots of arrows, sharpened bits of wood and of course flying daggers. I thought this camera trick felt overused, it looks good, but eventually started to feel tired as yet another dagger is seen boomeranging into action.
As events reach a climax, the plot gets pretty messy, as revelation after revelation is thrown about. In contrast to Hero's coda, where the action became about what's doing right for the good of the whole country, House of Flying Daggers has one of a more personal nature. It never quite rings true, there just isn't the emotion on display for this to work. The final act is somewhat botched, with a "it's over, no it isn't" feel to it, which caused a few "no ways" to be uttered in my vicinity. It is yet another gloriously shot scene, but we'd already seen some extraordinary moments. I felt it seemed to be reaching a more natural conclusion, and with a bit of editing a tighter last half hour would've made this a classic.
As it stands House of Flying Daggers is a fine movie, never quite as good as Hero, and probably behind Crouching Tiger too, and maybe it goes on a bit too long, but it's far superior to most of the formulaic actioners Hollywood produces. Out of ten, I'd give it an eight.
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