“House of Flying Daggers,” Zhang Yimou’s second contribution to the Chinese swordplay or wuxia film genre, features a bamboo martial arts sequence better executed than the one in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Ang Lee, 2000); computer generated flying daggers; a jaw-dropping fight scene where a sword is pitted against flowing, long sleeves; adrenaline-pumping sword-fights in fields of wild flowers; and a story centering on two men in love with the same woman. Even with all the gravity-defying leaps and the characters’ superhuman abilities to survive wounds that would surely incapacitate if not kill the average person, the most unbelievable element in Zhang’s film is surprisingly enough the love story.
“House of Flying Daggers” or “Shi Mian Mai Fu” in Mandarin—literally “an ambush from ten sides”—takes place during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, and follows captains Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) on their mission to bring down one of the most recalcitrant rebel groups, the House of Flying Daggers. The plan is to kidnap the daughter of the Flying Daggers’ former leader. Leo sends Jin on an undercover assignment to find out if the Peony Pavilion’s new, blind dancer Mei (Zhang ZiYi) is really the daughter. Although she is captured and interrogated, Leo instructs Jin to go further undercover in order to locate the Flying Daggers’ lair. Jin rescues Mei from certain death and they flee into the rural countryside. Add in a couple of ulterior motives and the fact that both Leo and Jin are in love with Mei, and “House of Flying Daggers” begins to resemble more of a Shakespearean tragedy than the standard action-packed wuxia film. But then, Zhang Yimou does not settle for run-of-the-mill nor does Zhang ZiYi leave other characters unscathed. A sample of Zhang ZiYi’s past film roles reveals a pattern to the fates of her co-stars’ characters. Anyone who is charmed by or falls in love with the Chinese beauty ends up dead, heart-broken or generally miserable (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; “Legend of Zu”; Musa – The Warrior”; “Hero”; and “2046” to an extent). Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a shock when Leo and Jin find themselves in a world of hurt as a result of loving Mei. It shouldn’t, but it does, particularly in reference to Leo.
The pinnacle “why” question in “House of Flying Daggers” pertains to the reason Leo harbors such amorous feelings for Mei. He is on screen for a maximum of thirty-five minutes, and much of that time he shares with Jin. When Leo and Mei do interact, he is either domineering or cold. Though Mei and Jin have a conversation that is supposed to shed light on the situation, a brief discussion about these details is hardly sufficient. In contrast, Jin’s adoration towards Mei is easier to accept because we spend a substantial amount of time with them, witnessing Mei charm her rescuer as well as the way he reacts to her bright-eyed countenance. In fact, it’s only a matter of time before Jin succumbs to her child-like feistiness and irresistibly cute smile. Even the director is inevitably captivated.
Through a career that spans nearly twenty years and counting, Zhang Yimou has proven that he is a master at turning celluloid into canvas. Coupled with sparse dialogue and straightforward narratives, his films are comprised of frame after frame of breath-taking beauty. Furthermore, Zhang wields visual motifs (usually in the form of specific color schemes) to enrich and emphasize the emotional and psychological aspects of particular scenes as well as the film’s ideological themes; and it has never been a weakness…until now. In painting the landscape surrounding Jin and Mei as they journey through the wilderness, Zhang Yimou unfortunately succeeds in neglecting a crucial point of character development, one that cannot be covered or compensated for by fast-paced chases through a dense forest or gorgeous swirling snow.