After having let Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Hero sit on a shelf for nearly two years before releasing it to American theatres this past fall, distrbutor Miramax films must have been pleasantly surprised when it turned into a minor sleeper hit. Determined not to make the same mistake again, the studio has released Yimou‘s follow up House Of Flying Daggers only a few short months of it’s Fall Asian premier.
At the end of the Tang Dynasty, rebellion is forming across China in opposition to growing governmental corruption. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) are two officials of the emperor who have been charged with bringing the largest dissident group, known as the House of Flying Daggers, to justice. Their only lead is Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a blind dancer who is rumored to be the daughter of the House’s former leader. The two devise a blind to trick her into accepting Jin into her confidence and lead him to the dissidents’ headquarters. However, on their trip northward, Jin and Mei fall in love, leading the pair to clash with Leo and with their own sense of duty and honor.
House is one of the most gorgeously and meticulously designed films of the year. The period and costume detail owe more to the production value of Hong Kong film factory Shaw Brothers Studios at its height than to the stylized realism of Hero. The film’s cinematography from newcomer Xiaoding Zhao is crisp and sharp, showcasing the sets and costumes and bringing color to vibrant life. Like the visual design of Hero, Yimou again makes stylized use of color, this time managing to complement and underscore the emotional states of the characters.
The action sequences, like many of the sequences in the higher profile films to come out of Asia, are choreographed with an almost ballet-like sensibility. The combatants move with a grace a precision that recalls great dancers and Yimou knows enough to let these fights unfold in shots that showcase the actors much in the manner of an old Hollywood musical. With no editing tricks or stunt people to hide behind, such verisimilitude from the actors helps to make even the more fantastic elements of the battles, such as the weapons from which the rebels take their name, easier to accept.
Compared to Hero, House delves a bit deeper into its characters’ relationships and the conflict that arises between love and duty. With it’s lovers on opposite sides of warring political factions and third act reveals, House of Flying Daggers comes off more as a wuxia film by way of Shakespeare, if the Bard had accompanied Marco Polo on one of his journeys to the Orient. It’s a fine mixture of romance and tragedy with enough martial arts action to ultimately please both the art house and Cineplex crowd.