House of Flying Daggers
The Chinese director Zhang Yimou first came to our attention with a series of exquisitely observed romantic tragedies, almost Greek in scale and power: "Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern." His muse was the ethereal beauty Gong Li, and his stories were as compelling as a Stendhal novel. And then he moved to a different artistic place; he made films like "Not One Less" and "The Road Home," pastorals that seemed more like socialist-realist art than anything moving or resonant.
Now, in perhaps his third phase, he's made two martial-arts films that have only recently been released in the United States. The first was "Hero"(2002), a story ostensibly about assassination attempts on the life of the emperor who ultimately unified China in 200BC, but really a romance of three men and two women who all are legendary fighters. The film was visually stunning - we gasped at the compositions and the uses of color (shot by the Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle) - but it lacked the empathic power of the early films.
His most recent release is "House of Flying Daggers," and it seems designed almost as a mechanical simulacrum of a martial-arts film. That is, it exists only to dazzle, and cannot move us or thrill us beyond the images we see on the screen. It's set in the ninth century, during the last days of the Tang dynasty. A rebel group called the Flying Daggers, led by a woman, is threatening the empire, or at least the town's police force. Two police officers believe that the blind courtesan Mei (Zhang Ziyi, who is Mr. Zhang's current muse) is secretly a member of the Daggers. In the first of the film's dazzling sequences, she is forced to play what's called the 'Echo Game,' in which a circle of perhaps fifty drums is set around her at a distance, and with the weighted sleeves of her costume she must hit the correct drum that her nemesis has thrown a nut at. The dance gets more and more complex as she whirls and flings her sleeves; I saw "House of Flying Daggers" long before I saw "The Incredibles," but now all I can think of is Elastigirl.
But wait: one of the policemen is secretly a sympathiser of the Daggers - or is he? First he helps Mei escape, then he tells his partner that he's following her to the secret headquarters of the Daggers, then his partner - oh, never mind. The reversals come thick and fast - so fast, in fact, that we want to laugh at how the film takes each one seriously. What we don't laugh at, though, is a series of extraordinary visual effects. A man shoots four arrows - one, two, three, four - through the thickets of a bamboo forest; they hit their four targets simultaneously. There are aerial fights high in the bamboo groves, with spears and sticks and men leaping great distances. And then there is a final lovemaking in a golden field, dissolving into a final fight in that field as it turns slowly to white under a snowstorm.
In other words, Zhang has made magic his theme, rather than any kind of believable love, or honor, or even action. If we think back to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," what makes that film memorable is not the action, as beautiful as it is, but two parallel and powerful love stories: first, of two aging heroes confronting a villain worthy almost of Shakespeare; second, of two young people who find, then lose, then find each other. "House of Flying Daggers" seems almost a parody, instead of a romance, and it suffers accordingly.