Saturday, December 11, 2004

I Look "Daggers" at Thee, O Mine Rival


directed by Zhang Yimou
starring Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro

"House of Flying Daggers" begins like a ballet and ends like an opera. Good ballet. Bad opera. Against the backdrop of the late Tang dynasty, Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, a blind courtesan who may be one of the Flying Daggers, a secret resistance force the government is bent on smoking out and destroying. As per plan, a police agent, Jin (Kaneshiro), poses as a solo fighter interested in joining the Daggers, by springing Mei from jail and telling her, "Take me to your leader." So they head north, and Jin's captain, Leo (Lau), and government troops follow close behind. Everyone gets more than they bargained for when Leo can't keep the government soldiers from attacking Jin and Mei, and the fugitives start falling for each other. Many fights, twists, and turns insue, and, of course, a love triangle develops.

Visually, "Daggers" isn't nearly as dazzling as "Hero," Zhang Yimou's last foray into the wu xia genre. (Neither surpasses the director's even earlier gangster drama, "Shanghai Triad," which is still one of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen.) Despite the high production values and top-notch martial arts, the fight scenes aren't as effectively filmed as some I've seen - with two exceptions. There's an impressive "Echo Game" dance and swordfight in the beginning, and a spectacular sequence in a bamboo forest in the middle. Unfortunately, the ending drags out WAY too long, ultimately reaching a Wagnerian pitch of melodramatic absurdity that - like even the best performance of Wagner - may just have you shifting restlessly and wondering when the damn thing's going to be over.

On the plus side, Zhang shows more depth than I've seen in her previous work, and there's real heat between her and Kaneshiro. But she sparks with Lau, too, perhaps even more so. There's a scene early on when he's describing how she'll be tortured to give up the identity of her leader - and touching her at the same time - that's more disturbingly erotic than any of the torrid groping on the ground. It'll come back to haunt you when they meet again, lending a real touch of tragedy to all the bombast.

RATING: ** 1/2


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