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Pulp Culture
'House of Flying Daggers' combines martial arts and heart

January 20, 2005
By Franklin Harris

Having plunged headlong into martial arts with the 2002 film "Hero" starring Jet Li, "Raise the Red Lantern" director Zhang Yimou tries his hand at the genre again with "House of Flying Daggers."

"Hero" is a sweeping historical epic. "House of Flying Daggers," meanwhile, works on an entirely different level. Its fight sequences are slightly more realistic, less dependent on computer-generated effects but still making generous use of gravity-defying wire stunts. The cinematography is more naturalistic, relying on softer, more organic colors than "Hero," which is bathed in bright reds and oranges. As a result, "House of Flying Daggers" looks more down to earth than its predecessor, which is appropriate given its more down-to-earth story.

In the last days of the Tang Dynasty (about A.D. 900), the emperor's control over the land is slipping. A gang known as the House of Flying Daggers is operating in the countryside, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor in true Robin Hood fashion, if you overlook the fact that Robin Hood actually "stole" from tax collectors and simply gave the poor back their own money. It probably is no coincidence that members of the House of Flying Daggers all wear green, just like Robin of Sherwood.

But even with the Tang Dynasty in decline, local police have a duty to keep order. So, two police officers, Jin, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro ("Chungking Express"), and Leo, played by Andy Lau ("The Duel," "Infernal Affairs"), hatch a plot they hope will lead them to the new leader of the Flying Daggers.

They suspect a member of the House of Flying Daggers to be working in a local brothel. So, Jin goes in undercover to discover who the agent might be and finds Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a beautiful and graceful dancer with uncanny martial arts skills and an unexpected handicap: She is blind. As it happens, however, the former leader of the House of Flying Dragons has a blind daughter, making Mei a prime suspect.

Before long, Leo, pretending to raid the brothel, tricks Mei into outing herself and arrests her. But that is only half of the plan. Jin, still acting undercover, breaks into police headquarters and rescues Mei, promising to return her to the House of Flying Daggers if she will simply point the way.

From here, the story follows various twists and turns, some obvious and some not, although in retrospect, the twists are all pretty obvious. But Yimou skillfully keeps his audience's attention on everything except where the plot may be going.

Jin and Mei make their way across the countryside, trying their best to avoid the district police, not all of whom are in on Jin and Leo's plan.

I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Mei eventually gets the upper hand on Jin. You know it's coming from the very beginning, when Jin is bragging to Leo about how he can fool and seduce any woman. But this is only the first of many reversals, and I won't spoil the rest.

It would be easy to reduce the film's characters to stereotypes. Jin is the rogue with the heart of gold. Mei is the woman with the secret. Leo is the stoic man of duty. But the actors elevate their characters above the cliches. In particular, Lau gives Leo a boiling intensity that always threatens to run over, while Zhang Ziyi runs the gamut of emotions and easily surpasses her breakout performance as the spoiled brat of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Compared to "Hero," "House of Flying Daggers" is a smaller story, played out on a more human level, where the fights, while impressive, don't overwhelm the characters. For Yimou, this is a more natural way of filmmaking, and what "House of Flying Daggers" lacks in flash, it makes up in heart.

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