Spectacular beauty, existing simply and unapologetically for beauty’s sake, has the power to overwhelm and enchant the senses so completely that the object of beauty transcends intellect and communicates directly with the heart. Operas and ballets have followed this line for centuries. And just as the singing and dancing in those art forms compensate for underdeveloped and overwrought stories, the pure visual elation that comes from watching “House of Flying Daggers” is able to captivate on a visceral level and excuse the over-plotted story.
Zhang Yimou (“Hero”) directs the film, set at the end of China’s Tang Dynasty, with his muse Zhang Ziyi (also of “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) at the forefront as Mei, a member of a “Star Wars”-style resistance group, the House of Flying Daggers. Kaneshiro Takeshi is Jin, a work-a-day policeman who plans to earn Mei’s trust and thereby learn the secrets of the Flying Daggers. He’s not particularly committed to his cause and eventually falls in love with Mei. Andy Lau completes the ambiguous love triangle as a double agent.
In their third pairing, Ziyi proves once and for all to be the perfect star for Yimou’s particular brand of intoxicating cinematic paintings. She has an eerily perfect face, so balanced and beautiful that every shot of her becomes an exquisite portrait. Possessing a quiet serenity and grace mingled with formidable physical power, she’s haunting and enchanting in every way. In Takeshi, Ziyi has found her equal. He’s exquisitely good-looking in the traditional matinee-idol mode, but the real significance of his performance is the profound, underlying strength and emotion he lends to the role.
The true highlight of “Flying Daggers,” however, is Yimou’s direction. He has constructed a marvelously watchable film that floats the audience gently and pleasantly from one gorgeous scene to the next without much aid from the story. Every frame is meticulously crafted, every swoop of the camera and close up of a flying weapon singing through the air is designed to excite the eye and confuse the brain.
In an act of benign generosity, Yimou also keeps the film appropriately short and tightly directed. Though there are more incomprehensible plot twists than one could shake a large intricately carved gold dagger at, the end result is that the audience stops paying attention to the story and concentrates simply on the feelings that the actors and the visuals evoke. In the final fight between the Jin and Andy, all pretense of logic has been stripped away and there is only raw, surging emotion — love and hate mingled with betrayal and loyalty — expressed through a savage and bloody showdown that stands in powerful contrast to the elegant beauty of the landscape and the sudden snowstorm that encompasses the pair.
“House of Flying Daggers” is likely to get passed over during awards season because it lacks a solid tearjerker punch. But it has subtle feeling etched more deeply and clearly than one would suspect, given its flimsy premise. In a year hailed for the renaissance of the biopic, “Flying Daggers” marks another overlooked triumph for foreign films. It’s about as enchanting and transcendent an experience as film going gets.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars