House of Flying Daggers (review)

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Passion in Motion

It’s impossible not to compare Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers with Hero, his previous film, because although two years separate them, we got them in a one-two punch here in the States. And I was still reeling from Hero when I sat down to watch this new one, and although I kinda didn’t think it would be possible, House of Flying Daggers is even more beautiful and more romantic and more exciting and more spectacular and more everything. I’m almost afraid to know what Zhang will conjure up for his next film — I might explode out of sheer delight.
It’s a bit of a Robin Hood story this time, with a noble gang of do-gooders called the House of Flying Daggers fighting against a corrupt emperor and the inequities of a foundering society. Civilization here may be in decline, but it’s still the height of elegance — while over in Europe my ancestors were wallowing in the mud of the Dark Ages (the year is A.D. 859), here we have a smartly uniformed police force and educated women and an entire leisure class of musicians and artists and courtesans (there’s an exhibition of Tang Dynasty art currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that makes a surprisingly enlightening double feature with the film). This is a world where people have the time and the spiritual wherewithal to devote themselves to something like the “Echo Game,” which the new girl at the Peony Pavilion, Mei, plays with cop Leo, a combination of dance and martial arts that involves banging a circle of drums with the sleeve of her robes at supernatural speed. House kicks off, literally, with that kind of bang, half ballet, half flirtation, their back-and-forth taunting — he throws beans at the drums, she duplicates the resulting sounds — building to a climax that is downright sexual.

The whole film, in fact, is saturated with sex, not the physical act but the passion and the desire, in a sticky triangle that entangles Mei (Zhang Ziyi: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) — who may be a spy for the Flying Daggers — the cop Leo (Andy Lau: Infernal Affairs), and his underling Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). In a grand scheme to tease the location of the Flying Daggers HQ out of her, Leo arrests Mei, and then Jin, in disguise, helps her escape, letting her lead their flight, hopefully, into the hands of the rebels. But Jin is falling for Mei for real — or is he? There are simply layers upon layers of deception here, all sorts of divided loyalties and passions pulling our triangle in more directions than you can anticipate. In Hero Zhang played around with telling and retelling the same story from different perspectives so that you’re never quite sure what’s true and what isn’t — here, he puts us on that same unsteady ground when it comes to emotion, in a way that replicates the uncertainty that goes along with even the most secure romantic relationship.

House of Flying Daggers features some of the most indescribably incredible bits of action I’ve ever seen on film, combat that moves with a fluid liquidity that takes your breath away highlighted by sounds so evocative and seductive — the rustling of leaves, the crack of bamboo on bamboo, even the heavy breathing that comes with physical exertion — that you ache to actually be present at the moment. But what has really stayed with me from the film is the goodly stretch of it in which Mei and Jin are on the run and falling in love (maybe…): a lovely, tingly confluence of the adventurous-romantic with the sexual-romantic as they dash through lush, luminous autumnal forests and save each other’s lives and touch and kiss and make you sigh with the shivery perfection of it. Man, these two just about the onscreen couple of the year, the kind where you want to be one of them — either one — just to be able to get close to the other. They’re gorgeous (Kaneshiro has a masculine comeliness that reminds me of Ioan Gruffudd’s — I couldn’t take my eyes off him) and strong and deliciously wracked by matters of honor and allegiance. What’s not to love?

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