In what may be the single most ravishing sequence in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (and there’s a lot of competition), Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a sexy rebel warrior whose blindness scarcely interferes with her fighting prowess, is traveling through a bamboo forest that looks like something out of The Warlord of the Rings when she’s ambushed by government assassins. They first appear atop the elegant trees, shimmying down the leafless, bone-smooth green stalks as if they were sliding down firehouse poles. Their weapons are bamboo too: little sawed-off daggers that jut out of the earth like primitive land mines, and also spears that glide through the air with quickening density. One spear comes within inches of spiking Mei, except that it gets sliced in half, with last-moment timing so exquisite you want to applaud, by a sword hurled from the sure hand of her guide and protector, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Unlike, say, the treetop duel in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this bamboo battle has little pretense of unified kinetic flow; it’s a mad slashing pageant of speed and color and death. Even the fog has a lavish green tint to it, yet the lush pictorial dazzle of all those deceptively gentle bamboo stalks reveals a razory threat of nearly mystical dimension. In House of Flying Daggers , beauty and lethality become one. The high-kicking warriors in House of Flying Daggers sculpt destiny with every knife toss and clanging sword slash, yet the ultimate duel of excitement is the one between the audience and the movie itself. Zhang Yimou, the Chinese humanist director?turned?action aesthete (he had a hit earlier this year with the amusing if less cohesive Hero), sends daggers ripping across the screen, soaring toward their targets like heat-seeking missiles, and he has seductive fun with bows and arrows, too, along with good old human fists of fury. House of Flying Daggers is an outrageously gorgeous spectacle of balletic aggression. At the same time, it offers something we rarely encounter in a whirling martial-arts extravaganza: a romantic passion that’s woven into the very fabric of the action.
As the Tang dynasty nears its end in a.d. 859, Mei, a member of the cult of underground resistance fighters known as the House of Flying Daggers, travels through fields and mountains and spectacular autumnal forests to rejoin her fellow rebels. She is guided by Jin, who she doesn’t know is an undercover police agent attempting to infiltrate the Flying Daggers; the two fall in love, but what he doesn’t realize is that his fellow captain, Leo (Andy Lau), loves her as well. There isn’t a lot to the characters, but Ziyi Zhang, with her baby-doll eyes, gives Mei the amorous delicacy of a silent-movie star, and the fate of the triangle spins on gratifyingly unpredictable permutations of bravery, jealousy, loyalty, and sacrifice. Zhang stages it all with barely suppressed erotic force. There’s a writhing-in-the-meadow scene that would never have made it past the Chinese censors a few years ago, but the enraptured spirit of House of Flying Daggers finds its fullest expression in the thrusting chivalry of the action. These are characters who love to fight, but only because they fight to love.