This article was updated on May 18, 2004.
In his second trip to the martial arts well after his landmark “Hero,” mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou draws different water with the same bucket in “House of Flying Daggers,” a more crowd-pleasing but less abstract dip into the genre directed with equal calculation. The tangled tale of love and disguise is awesome in its action sequences but doesn’t touch the heart to the same degree, making pic of broader appeal than “Hero” but unlikely to be a second “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” at least in Western markets. Set to open in China this summer, with a Beijing premiere July 16, film goes out Stateside through Sony Pictures Classics.
Zhang is on record as saying that “‘Hero’ was an experiment, ‘House of Flying Daggers’ is the real thing,” which pretty much sums up the difference between the two movies. The comparison won’t mean much for some Western viewers — Miramax has yet to release “Hero” (2002) in the U.S. 18 months after its Asian preem — but it’s a valid one.
Set in A.D. 859, when the once-prosperous Tang dynasty was torn by unrest, film gets straight down to business, with a tiny cast of three main characters and no huge sets or thousands of extras. Two police captains, Leo (Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau) and Jin (Japanese-Taiwanese hunk Takeshi Kaneshiro), have been assigned to pry out the leader of the Flying Daggers, the most prominent of the anti-government rebel groups. Acting on a tip, Jin goes undercover to Peony Pavilion, a house of pleasure where a suspect is meant to be working.
Posing as “Wind,” a young libertine, Jin asks the owner, Madam Yee (Song Dandan), to bring on her newest girl, a blind dancer called Mei (Zhang Ziyi). In the first of the film’s many set pieces, and with an almost Bollywood-style visual richness, Mei entertains him with a number performed to a female orchestra of pipa players, after which Jin attempts to publicly rape her.
Mei’s honor is saved by Leo, who shows up as if on cue and berates his colleague for ungentlemanly behavior. After Jin has been hauled away to sober up, Leo takes his place at the table of honor and — in a classic test of mutual skills, as well as her claim to blindness — challenges Mei to the Echo Game. This involves Leo bouncing a bean off a circle of drums and Mei identifying the drums with the flowing sleeves of her garment in an improvised dance number.
This is classic martial arts stuff, as protagonists size up each other at an early stage, but Zhang stages the confrontation in a much more aestheticized way — through music, dance, color and design — than is usual. Though Mei proves his match even when he tries a final trick with the beans, Leo bests her in a subsequent encounter, through sensory overload.
With Mei under lock and key, and told she’ll be tortured to reveal info, Leo and Jin cook up a scheme to get her to lead them to the head of the group unawares. Posing as a sympathizer to her cause, Jin busts Mei out of prison, wins her trust and accompanies her on a journey through forests and landscapes to the Flying Daggers’ headquarters, secretly followed by Leo and his men. En route, however, Jin and Mei start falling for each other.
Zhang has described the picture as “not an ordinary martial arts film, but a love story inserted into an action movie.” (In Japan, the film is to released under the English title “Lovers.”) That will broaden its appeal to distaff audiences, especially given Lau and Kaneshiro’s large following in Asia. But for a director who’s shown he’s more than capable of tugging the heartstrings (“The Road Home,” “Not One Less,” “Happy Times”) “Daggers” never really engages at an emotional level.
Like “Hero,” the pic has a basic hardness and rigor that marks it as northern rather than southern Chinese in flavor, however much the colorful lensing by Zhao Xiaoding (“Spring Subway,” plus an assistant d.p. to Christopher Doyle on “Hero”) and the lyrical score by onetime Japanese rock musician Shigeru Umebayashi (“In the Mood for Love”) tries to convince otherwise. Dialogue between the characters is also functional rather than inspired.
The action set pieces really are the core of “Daggers,” and these hit the mark with eye-popping accuracy and sonic elan. From Mei’s musical gymnastics in the Echo Game, to a balletic bamboo-forest fight that tops that in “Crouching Tiger” and equals the classic sequence in King Hu’s “A Touch of Zen,” to the heroes’ final mano a mano in the snow, Hong Kong action maestro (Tony) Ching Siu-tung pushes the envelope in the combination of wire-fu and CGI, to much more gutsy and realistic effect than in “Hero.”
Putting her dance training to supple use, Zhang more than earns her stripes as a full action heroine after her relatively small role in “Hero.”
Kaneshiro cuts a dashing figure as the easygoing Jin and fills the role with proper physical presence. Of the three leads, the least convincing is Lau, who’s always been more at home in contemporary pics than in costume dramas — though he’s come a ways as an actor in recent years, especially in the recent “Infernal Affairs” trilogy.
In a first for a swordplay movie, a sizable chunk of the pic was shot in a pine forest near Lviv, in Ukraine, whose soft pastels and New England-like fall colors contrast memorably with the green-suffused tones of the bamboo forest, lensed in Yongchuan, southwest China. Studio interiors, in Beijing, are smaller in scale than in “Hero,” with only one standout, the ornately colored, circular Peony Pavilion set. Other credits are top drawer, especially costumes by Emi Wada (another “Hero” returnee), whose use of fabrics and leather has an almost tactile flavor.
For the record, the Chinese title literally means “Ambushes From Ten Sides,” title of a classic pipa virtuoso solo, which describes a battle between two ancient warlords. Here, it reflects the continual skirmishing through which the two lovers travel — an action journey that’s the real heart of the movie.
Pic is dedicated to the memory of actress-singer Anita Mui, who was to have had a role in the film, but died of cancer at the end of last year.