- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

The only inelegant detail in the new martial arts epic “House of Flying Daggers” is its title. This sumptuous production makes 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” look like a rough draft.

Director Zhang Yimou (“Hero”) fills the screen with so many colors and feats of wonder that the jaw drops and never closes back up.

From its simple premise, the film’s plot branches out prodigiously. We’re nearing the end of China’s Tang Dynasty, and the government’s grip upon its people is both cruel and haphazard. A band of revolutionaries dubbed the House of Flying Daggers is meting out justice its own way, distributing money to the citizens according to Robin Hood’s economic model.

The government has killed the house’s patriarch, but another leader has emerged to continue the fight.

Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), two of the government’s captains, decide to arrest the old leader’s daughter, a blind — and blindingly beautiful — dancer named Mei (Ziyi Zhang) for questioning.

Their efforts fail, but not before we witness the “echo game,” an ingenious dance sequence in which Mr. Zhang fuses sights and sounds to remarkable effect.

That the filmmaker unveils his most breathtaking set piece in the film’s first 15 minutes bespeaks confidence, arrogance or both.

His self-assurance is not misplaced, given the treats ahead, including a sword fight fought partially in the air amid a bamboo forest.

Jin eventually opts for a different strategy to wring information out of Mei. He’ll pose as a vagabond swordsman and rush to her rescue when his fellow officers capture her. What he doesn’t anticipate is her paralyzing grace or the way he feels compelled to rush to her side whenever danger erupts.

How could the two not fall in love, what with so many picturesque fall backdrops and a score worthy of the best Hollywood romances?

The two battle side by side as they travel through their homeland’s wilderness, drawing ever closer but keeping their secrets locked tightly within.

We haven’t even touched upon the film’s romantic rival, a story line with “Romeo & Juliet” reverberations that only raise the emotional payoffs.

Today’s moviegoers are growing numb to gorgeous visuals. Between visionaries like Quentin Tarantino and computer-enhancements that open up endless possibilities, we’re used to being wowed.

Every frame of every scene in “Daggers” is something to cherish, melting away our preconceptions about the laws of physics and moviemaking alike. Rarely is CGI wizardry exploited with such style and sophistication.

Where “Daggers” truly startles us, however, is with its love story, a tale that transcends a few clumsy revelations.

The film’s leads appear as comfortable with the endlessly intricate fight scenes as they are basking in each other’s adoration. Ziyi Zhang, who also starred in “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger,” can evoke the delicacy of stained glass one moment, then coil that petite frame into a vicious fighting machine the next. The transformation is as startling as anything in cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao’s repertoire.

By the time we’ve reached “Daggers’” final duel, a battle royal during which the seasons shift from fall to winter, Mr. Zhang has us right where he wants us, agape at the next wonder coming our way.

****

WHAT: “House of Flying Daggers”

RATING: PG-13 (Martial arts-style action, some bloody sequences and sexual situations). In Mandarin with English subtitles

CREDITS: Directed by Zhang Yimou. Original music by Shigeru Umebayashi. Cinematography by Xiaoding Zhao

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/houseofflyingdaggers/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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