House of Flying Daggers
(Shi mian mai fu) (2004)
Directed by Zhang Yimou

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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In the last years of the decaying T'ang dynasty, two policemen, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), learn that Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer skilled in martial arts employed in a local brothel, could be the daughter of the deceased leader of a revolutionary group known as the House of Flying Daggers. The two of them then concoct a plot they hope will lead them to the group's new leader. After Leo has arrested the girl, Jin, pretending to be a wandering swordsman, rescues her and accompanies her on her journey back to the House of Flying Daggers, while Leo and a T'ang general follow behind them.

Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers is an astonishingly lovely and affecting film. While it may not be a masterpiece, it does, at the very least, come very close.

The whole of the movie is, in fact, stunningly beautiful and remarkably engaging. The exquisitely choreographed fight sequences are invariably exhilarating, and the story of romance and betrayal that unfolds through the course of the film is even more entrancing. What is more, these feelings of love and excitement are consistently enhanced by the movie's colorful images and gorgeous cinematography. Yimou has created a film of such astonishing visual beauty that even had he dispensed with every other element of the movie, he would still have been able to stir up profound emotions in the viewer with its images alone.

The film's narrative is, however, complex and rewarding. From the story of the two policemen's plot to discover the whereabouts of the leader of the House of Flying Daggers and the subsequent flight of Jin and Mei, the director evolves an intricate structure of plots hidden behind plots, unspoken emotions, secret motives, and more, all of which are so intriguing and genuinely affecting that the viewer is constantly engaged by the skillfully constructed story he is being told.

Additionally, the frequent action sequences which punctuate the movie, and which enhance its emotive resonance, are among the best I have encountered in any film. While all are sumptuous and dance-like, each has its own distinctive look and feel. Some are relatively realistic portrayals of combat and others employ the magical actions favored in movies of the Wu Xia or Flying Swordsman genre. The wild, impossible feats of the latter style are beautifully realized and endow the film with an intoxicating, legendary feel. Furthermore, by combining the deadly excitement of combat with a subtle loveliness, Yimou has provided the viewer with an utterly captivating experience.

Fortunately, such qualities do not exhaust the list of the movie's virtues. The performances of the three leads are all accomplished and nuanced. Each of their characters, consequently, emerges as a complex individual with whom the viewer is able to involve himself. Zhang Ziyi, for example, not only endows Mei with cunning, seductiveness, physical prowess, agility, and grace but shows the viewer her love and her internal conflicts so that he is fascinated by her and able to feel her emotions.

House of Flying Daggers truly is a fantastically beautiful, exhilarating, and engaging film.

Review by Keith Allen

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