Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is a triangular love
story heated to the boiling point in an action-movie pressure cooker. The movie’s
impossibly glamorous martial-arts heroes are inarticulate soldier-acrobats,
locked into a game of undercover intrigue with a Chinese-box structure that
keeps revealing deeper levels of deception and betrayal.

In genre terms, the premise is primal: The provincial authorities
in Fengtian, in Tang Dynasty China (circa 800 A.D.), have reached a turning
point in their long-running game of cat-and-mouse with a wily clan of rebel
conspirators, the House of Flying Daggers. Though the Daggers have suffered
some recent setbacks, their effectiveness seems to be increasing, and a steely
veteran government enforcer, Leo, played with artfully damped-down inner force
by Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah, has assigned his most trusted protégé
to infiltrate the enemy camp by seducing the daughter of its recently assassinated
leader.

This aspect of the story resembles quite a few movies about undercover
cops who get in too deep. As soon as we clap eyes on them, we know it’s only
a matter of time before the infiltrator, Jin, a dashing yet ingenuous lady killer
played by pan-Asian heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro (Returner), will fall
hard for his target, Mei, a doe-eyed blind swordswoman (Zhang Ziyi, the cast-iron
pixie from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). What’s surprising is how
quickly they are swept away, and how helpless these -powerful warriors seem
in the grip of some fairly commonplace emotions.

In the end, though, that’s the point. Like both Crouching Tiger
and Zhang Yimou’s first venture into the genre, Hero, the movie isn’t
a kung fu slugfest but a high-flying swashbuckler in the ancient foundational
genre known as wuxia (“martial chivalry”), whose rigorously
trained paragons achieve physical abilities that border on the magical. But
Zhang sees these martial-arts wizards — soldiers who are also athletes and acrobats
— as people who communicate eloquently only with and through their bodies. They
don’t talk much. (In one version of the script for Zhang’s Hero, the
assassin played by Jet Li was a mute who communicated by writing on the ground
with his sword, a theme that survives in the finished film in some scenes associating
the art of swordplay with calligraphy.) It’s perfectly logical in this context
— as it was in, say, Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America
— that in separate scenes, both the men in Flying Daggers attempt to
force themselves upon the woman they claim to love.

FLYING DAGGERS is the most seamless piece of sensuous
expressionism Zhang has created since Ju Dou (1990). In a way that seems
analogous to the balance of attributes in his characters, he seems most eloquent
when he is least verbal. There are long passages without dialogue, audiovisual
tone poems in which the lovers decide either to leave or return to each other,
charging back and forth through the woods on horseback to the accompaniment
of Shigeru Umebayashi’s ebullient score. The movie’s real subject is the emotion
that sweeps these arrogant characters off their feet, and to evoke it Zhang
exploits every physical resource of the movies: color, sound, music, headlong
movement, and the dancelike forms of aestheticized violence that are a unique
feature of Chinese martial-arts movies. Working with the gifted Hong Kong–based
fight choreographer Tony Ching Siu-Tung (A Chinese Ghost Story), Zhang
concocts Rube Goldberg set pieces that evolve logically from the simple to the
complex to the surreal. Staging a pitched battle in a bamboo forest, and consciously
trying to one-up the long line of directors who have used this location in the
past, Zhang introduces a double-decker: Fighters high in the branches chop the
trunks into spears, hurling down so many into the ground that our heroes are
hemmed in and imprisoned in a makeshift cage. With only two movies in the genre
on his résumé, Zhang Yimou is already producing scalp-crawlingly
beautiful effects.

Indeed, a certain amount of operatic heightening is perhaps inevitable
when you set a love story in jiang hu (the realm of rivers and lakes),
the mythical “martial world” of outlaws and vagabonds. It is as crucial
to these stories as to those about gunfighters and gangsters that they take
place in a lawless milieu in which strong men make their own rules. (Literary
scholar C.T. Hsia identified a “gang morality” in the wuxia
genre’s DNA as far back as the novel Water Margin in the 13th century.)
Flying Dagger’s Chinese title, Shi Mian Mai Fu (Ambush From
Ten Sides
), refers to this sense of constant conflict and conspiracy.

As resonant as the subject is, the movie’s fairly single-minded
concern with the power of passion may end up hurting it, especially with the
fanboy action crowd. Those guys will be snickering with self-conscious discomfort
long before the eruption of the tempestuous love-in-death finale.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS | Directed by ZHANG YIMOU | Written
by FENG LI, BIN WANG and ZHANG | Produced by WILLIAM KONG and ZHANG | Released
by Sony Pictures Classics | Citywide