House of Flying Daggers
dir. Zhang
Open Fri Dec 17
Fox Tower

It was, of course, too good to be true: Rumors of a Chinese martial arts film from director Yimou Zhang that would trump Hero. Zhang's Hero had already made a fair amount of mincemeat out of America's favorite high-flying martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and here it was--House of Flying Daggers--showing up in import video stores and on the web, for all purposes billed as a Hero-killer.

It's a comparison as unfair as it is inevitable, and Daggers doesn't fare well by its association. But while it doesn't have the emotional or philosophical resonance of Hero, Daggers is still a solid entry into the wuxia genre--an action genre that limns surreal and heroic events in an idealized historical China.

Daggers follows two deputies, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), who are aiming to track down the House of Flying Daggers--a shadowy terrorist cell undermining the government. Finding a likely suspect in a blind dancer, Mei (Ziyi Zhang), Jin goes undercover, hoping she'll lead him to the House of Flying Daggers' secret hideout.

Like Hero, the plot here is much deeper than it initially appears--but unlike Hero, that calls for some wariness. Films of the wuxia genre are unabashedly histrionic, but this one feels even more so; the plot's punches growing weaker and weaker as the filmmakers pull out big emotional stops with exhausting, insecure regularity.

It's almost as if the plot's a little bit self-conscious of the imagery in Daggers--and with good reason. This is as much of a fantasy film as it is a martial arts epic, and it's appropriately gorgeous and surreal, filled with darkly ethereal bamboo forests and stunning fields of snow. Much of the credit for keeping Daggers from devolving into mere spectacle, however, comes from the versatile performances from the talented Zhang and Kaneshiro. (Lau's also first-rate, even if his character suffers the most from the script's unending twists.) This action-savvy cast is fully utilized in Zhang's powerfully filmed action sequences--the near-constant battles are astounding, breathtaking in both concept and execution. For all of its greater hopes and attempts, House of Flying Daggers ends up being best at what it seems most self-conscious about being--a slam-bang kung fu movie.