The story is simple enough: Sometime during the dying days of the Tang Dynasty in China, though it could really be any time and any place, two cops named Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) sit in a station house drinking tea. They decide one of them will go undercover in a whorehouse to ferret out the new girl, who is, in reality, a member of a gang of assassins out to take down the government. The girl, named Mei (played by Zhang Ziyi), is jailed and sprung by the cop (Kaneshiro) posing as an independent contractor, a hired gun; he will return the girl, who is blind, to her gang on the condition she introduces him to the gang's higher-ups, who will perhaps pay him a handsome reward for her safe return. During their journey, the woman (who is in the dark in more ways than one) and the man (who is blinded by the woman's beauty) will fend off friends posing as enemies and enemies posing as friends, and they will fall madly in love. But in time the man will discover the woman isn't at all who he believed she was, the woman will discover the man isn't quite who she thought he was, and both will find out that others along their path aren't who they claim to be either. Hearts will be broken, blood will be spilled, and lives will be ended, just before the movie itself ends in a storm of snow and tears.
But for the second film in a row, director Zhang Yimou is concerned less with the story than in the telling of it, and so the merits of House of Flying Daggers cannot be boiled down into discussions of plot points and performances. To do so, to merely reiterate key moments of storytelling while informing you that actress Zhang Ziyi burns like a young sword-wielding Audrey Hepburn, would slight a masterpiece that must be seen to be believed. House of Flying Daggers, the second film from Yimou to be released stateside this year, isn't mere product to be pondered and peddled and consumed and passed through the system. It's something that should be hung on a wall and marveled at -- all those beautiful colors and beautiful faces and beautiful costumes and beautiful poses, begging to be savored and lingered over by those not in a hurry to catch a late dinner or pay the babysitter. A movie so widescreen it often seems to bleed into the neighboring theater; its exquisiteness can overwhelm in a single sitting.
On its surface, House of Flying Daggers could be taken as an exercise in the oh-so-familiar, a traditional kung-fu action film dolled up for the opera-hall (or art-house) crowd, with its brocade garments and polished cutlery and elaborate sets that seem to be constructed out of porcelain and silk; even the swords seem to sing as they slice through the air, like animated characters in a Disney movie. Yimou, once a maker of historical dramas and neo-realist slices-of-life, doesn't go in for the junk and muck of Hong Kong action movies; he's too old for that nonsense, too mature for that mindlessness. He merely uses the accoutrements of Hong Kong movies (and 1950s American westerns and the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk) to tell love stories in which his politics have taken a back seat in another car altogether.
Like Hero, Yimou's film released in China in 2002 and made available by Miramax in the U.S. last summer, Flying Daggers ratchets up the high-wire razzle-dazzle used by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and sets the volume at eleven. People don't merely dance across treetops; they soar above them like supermen whose feet have never even touched ground. They don't dodge single spears but whole skies full of them, raining down like storms made of razor-edged steel. Yes, some of these scenes are fleshed out with the aid of computer-generated imagery, but those bits and bytes never leave the movie feeling cold or empty or wanting. Yimou, using a palette of autumnal colors that finally and forebodingly gives way to a blanket of snow tipped in blood-red, makes his film as warm as a hearth.
Especially fiery is the relationship between Jin and Mei and another man whose identity shall remain secret (indeed, the second half of the movie devolves into a series of plot twists that will surprise as many in the audience as it will amuse to the point of titters). When first Jin and Mei meet, she's posing as a performer in a whorehouse, and Jin uses his sword to disrobe her, one fastener at a time; it's a seduction and threat, a cop taunting a suspect who also happens to turn him on. But, of course, theirs is a relationship that burgeons into an impractical (and not wholly improbable) love affair they, and we, know is doomed. But as much as they come to care for each other, no one adores them more than Yimou, who lingers on their faces whenever the action takes a pause. It's as though he's standing on the screen himself, the director playfully punching Kaneshiro's square jaw or tenderly caressing Ziyi's porcelain skin. His heart breaks enough for both of them.