Film — House of Flying Daggers (PG-13)

House of Flying Daggers (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

Beautifully costumed warriors battle in lusciously designed locations in the breathtakingly gorgeous martial-arts import House of Flying Daggers.

Did I mention this movie is beautiful? It makes Hero, which made it to American theaters in 2004, look downright drab by comparison. I sat through House of Flying Daggers enraptured in the sheer loveliness of the film. Only after the lights came up did I realize that the movie was basically a sudsy romance laced with bits of intrigue, which is not a criticism of the movie but only a much later recognition of the story’s simplicity. While in the theater all I could think was “wow.”

Why the wow? Well, for starters, this is another movie from Zhang Yimou, the force behind Hero. For those who didn’t see Hero, do so. Sure, it’s basically a big piece of one-China propaganda but it uses color with a skill that will blow you away. The fight scenes are exquisite — with costumes, scenery and motion perfectly blended with a result closer to a ballet than an action movie.

House of Flying Daggers shows up having learned a thing or two from Hero and all ready to do one better. The story is stronger, the acting is better and the fighting is more exciting.

Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is a blind dancer at the Peony Pavilion — a brothel in ninth-century China. Her skill draws the attention of two police officers, the undercover Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the officious Leo (Andy Lau). Jin asks her to dance and all but gets her arrested after he attacks her. Leo claims he’ll keep her out of jail if she successfully plays the Echo Game, where she matches the sounds he makes by throwing objects at a group of drums by hitting the exact drums in the exact same order with the ends of her elongated sleeves. Like Simon without the batteries.

She succeeds but ends her performance by drawing a sword on Leo so it’s off to jail she goes. Leo and Jin believe she is actually an important figure in the government opposition group House of Flying Daggers and decide to stage an escape. Jin “rescues” her in an attempt to get her to lead him to the group’s headquarters. Leo follows out of sight, preparing the government forces who will advance on the Daggers.

Except maybe Jin isn’t the only double agent. And quickly, the story unravels plots upon plots. The only thing that’s certain? Mei, who does most of the ass-kicking, is clearly the prettiest girl at this particular prom and everybody wants to dance with her.

It’s somewhere in the last five or so minutes of the film (the only time that the action really slows down) that you actually get a chance to stop and consider the story. It’s a romance. A love triangle develops. It’s all very pretty and poetic and, generally speaking, not much different from any given subplot of any drama on television. You could maybe compare it to the Gabriella-and-her-lawn-boy subplot on Desperate Housewives. She’s in love with two men, sort of — one out of passion, one out of duty and self-preservation. Mei? Same thing. But Gabriella never dons a green dress and tries to kill a man with a sword. Though, you know, maybe during the next sweeps period…

House of Flying Daggers is all about the attention-grabbing abilities of a beautiful-looking movie. It amazed me, once I really started to consider the basic nature of the storyline, how utterly bewitching the movie was. Think of all the lousy action movies you’ve ever seen, all the sub-par sci-fis. Imagine how much more arresting any one of those movies would have been had any thought gone in to appearance, how much more you would have forgiven of the plot, script and acting given something truly extraordinary to look at. Jerry Bruckheimer on his best day never constructed a spectacle this big.

- Amy Diaz

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