Zhang Yimou makes a comeback with House of Flying Daggers

Maybe--hopefully--it was just a one-time concession, an effort to get the Chinese censors off his back once and for all. Regular readers may recall my review last year of Hero, the gorgeous, innovative martial-arts epic by Zhang Yimou that concluded with an appalling paean to authoritarianism in general and the "one China" policy of Tibetan and Taiwanese subjugation in particular. Zhang's followup effort, thankfully, is less morally fraught. Just released on video, House of Flying Daggers shares Hero's balletic choreography, stunning palette, and innovative digital effects, but drops its deplorable politics.

Indeed, while the distinction is left implicit, the message of House of Flying Daggers is very nearly a rebuke to that of its predecessor. Hero ended by applauding individuals' willingness to give up everything--their ideals, their country, their lives--for the good of the Chinese state. But while House of Flying Daggers is also about imperial rule and rebellion, by its conclusion politics have faded far into the background. Although a decisive battle is about to take place between the empire and its resistance, the protagonists have left behind their loyalties to either side, instead fighting and dying for more intimate concerns: for love, for jealousy, for redemption or release. Zhang never bothers to show the clash of armies or let us know its outcome. Empire, rebels, he seems to be saying, what difference does it make who wins in the end?

Set in the ninth century, House of Flying Daggers begins with two government deputies, Jin (Takeshi Kineshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), assigned to find and kill the new head of a rebel organization known as the Flying Daggers. (This nickname, it will turn out, is not metaphorical.) Rumor has it that a member of the Daggers may be working at a local brothel, the Peony Pavilion. When Jin and Leo investigate, they encounter a blind dancer named Mei (Ziyi Zhang) who makes an attempt on Leo's life and is subsequently arrested. In an effort to get her to lead them to the Daggers' headquarters, Jin breaks her out of jail and escapes with her into the woods. The two are pursued by soldiers--first, a few men sent by Leo, who are in on the subterfuge and know not to harm them; later, battalions sent by a higher up, who feels it will improve the verisimilitude of the exercise if the men make every effort to kill them. Leo, meanwhile, follows behind, occasionally checking in with Jin and offering what little assistance he can--in particular, the advice not to fall in love with Mei. But Jin does, of course, and the three principals are soon caught in a triangle of competing motives, passions, and deceptions that leads to a series of bitter, and ultimately bloody, confrontations.

As great a relief as it is after the ugly moral of Hero, the tragic-romantic conclusion of House of Flying Daggers still falls flat. Even in his earlier, earnestly dramatic films--Ju Dou in 1990, for example--Zhang Yimou's portrayal of love felt a little inert, a sentiment that was announced more clearly than it was conveyed. This stagy formalism persists in House of Flying Daggers, and while it may simply be an issue of awkward cultural translation, it nonetheless makes it hard to empathize too deeply with the characters' loves and losses.

Happily, this is not a terribly serious shortcoming. For if House of Flying Daggers stumbles as an epic tragedy, it nonetheless soars as an action adventure. To a greater extent even than Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the movie blurs the line between dance and combat. It's a correlation made explicit early in the film. After performing a slow, traditional dance for Jin at the Peony Pavilion, Mei is challenged by Leo to play the "echo game." Upright drums are assembled in a circle around the blind girl; when Leo flicks a bean off one of them (then two, then dozens), Mei follows his lead with the long, weighted sleeves of her dress, spinning, kicking, and leaping with acrobatic zeal. (It undoubtedly helps that star Zhang Ziyi trained as a dancer before entering film.) At the end of her performance, the shift from art to violence is completed when Mei sends out one sinuous sleeve to unsheathe Leo's sword and attack him with a long-range dexterity that would make Dr. Octopus envious. It's a dazzling sequence.

The later fight scenes, after Mei has escaped with Jin into the wilderness, are more conventional but no less arresting. Of particular note is an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better rejoinder to the bamboo-grove duel staged by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, in which Mei and Jin are surrounded by tree-borne soldiers hurling bamboo javelins that whistle through the air and plonk on impact with the musicality of lethal wind chimes. As in Hero, Zhang Yimou finds a balance between computer-generated effect and live-action stunt that continues to elude most Hollywood filmmakers. The soldiers' javelins and rebels' boomerang-like daggers may be digitized, but the combatants themselves are not. Even Mei's remarkable sleeve-wielded sword is made possible with wires rather than pixels. As a result, no matter how delightfully cartoonish the action may at times become, it never looks like a cartoon. (Take note, Spider-Man.)

Kineshiro and Lau are well-paired as the two deputies, the former's long, gregarious face striking a powerful contrast with the latter's implacable good looks. And the lovely Zhiyi Zhang has never been lovelier, the occasional revelation of one of her bare shoulders recalling an almost forgotten era in film when eroticism was not synonymous with nudity.

But as with past Zhang Yimou efforts, the true stars are the sets, costumes, and scenery, a breathtaking banquet of colors and textures filmed with rapturous affection by cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao. The Peony Pavilion, with its intricately inlaid floor and walls, is a Taj Mahal of prostitution, the lavish robes and dresses worn by the girls more befitting queens than courtesans. The menacing uniforms and cruel-looking swords carried by the imperial soldiers, the Asianized Robin Hood attire of the rebels--all are assembled with a care that suggests the authentic and the mythic in equal measure.

These man-made marvels can hardly compete, however, with the landscape through which Mei and Jin make their long escape. The autumn foliage of the woods bursts with colors so vivid they could shame American trees into staying green all year long; the bamboo grove where Mei and Jin are ambushed (shot on location, not in a studio) is an otherwordly setting, a shaded yet open arena punctuated by bare tree poles. Were the political landscape somewhat different, Zhang's films might do for China's tourism industry what Peter Jackson's have done for New Zealand's.

House of Flying Daggers concludes with a sword battle between Jin and Leo that begins under sunny skies but ends in the midst of a heavy snow fall. It's a stunning image, reminiscent of the swirling yellow leaves Zhang turned blood red at the end of a fight sequence in Hero. Unlike that scene, however, the melee in the snow is the result not of digital tinkering, but of a higher-order intervention--an unanticipated blizzard that nearly cancelled shooting before Zhang decided to integrate it into the film. As I've noted before, few special effects can compete with the awesome wonders of the natural world. Sometimes it just takes a director, like Zhang, whose eyes are open to them.

The Home Movies List:
Bids at redemption?

Magnum Force (1973). Clint Eastwood's presumed penance for the vigilante credo of his early films is usually dated from Unforgiven in 1992. In reality, his most aggressive refutation of Dirty Harry justice came almost two decades earlier, in the first Dirty Harry sequel. (You can find more of my thoughts on the politics of Eastwood's oeuvre here.)

The Player (1992). A revenge/redemption twofer for Robert Altman. All but locked out of Hollywood by a studio establishment that thought him incapable of commercial success, he got back in the door with a commercial success that viciously satirized said establishment.

Kill Bill, Volume 1 and 2 (2003-2004). When Jackie Brown did ho-hum at the box office, Quentin Tarantino persuaded himself it was because the film was too slow and talkie--hence Kill Bill. Pity he didn't draw the alternative lessons that he should a) cut his work to manageable length, and b) drop the post-Travolta obsession with trying to lift fallen stars back into prominence.

Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith (2005). Is there anyone in Hollywood in greater need of redemption than George Lucas? I'm not holding my breath.