By Brian Rentschler
Short version: While sometimes visually stunning, this movie suffers tremendously from a weak script. In most aspects, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a better movie.
One of the first things that struck me about this film after it ended was how similar it was to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lots of martial arts battles, at least one of which is fought in the trees? Yep. A man and a woman develop an intense love for each other that's fraught with obstacles? Yep. Actress Ziyi Zhang even starred in both films. After all the comparisons are done, though, Crouching Tiger still comes out the winner.
One thing that really separates House of Flying Daggers from Crouching Tiger is how many plot twists it has. Some of them you can see coming from a mile away, while others are so nonsensical that you don't really know what to make of them. For the most part, the tone of the movie is playful and informal, almost like a stage play. That approach didn't work, at least not for me. The casting for this movie was really uneven. I liked Ziyi Zhang's performance, but both Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau seemed ill-suited for their respective roles. Kaneshiro always seems to have the "Look at me, I'm every woman's dream" look on his face, while Lau always seems to have the "Look at me, I'm in deep thought" look on his. Neither actor gave me the impression that he had really immersed himself in the character he was playing.
This is a subtitled movie; the spoken language is Chinese. The story is set in China in 859 A.D., towards the end of the Tang dynasty. The emperor's power is weakening, and many rebellion groups are starting to form. The one that is causing the government the most grief is called House of Flying Daggers. The group has earned this nickname through their masterful ability to thumb their noses at the laws of physics and make daggers fly pretty much wherever they want. However, things are not going well for the group because their leader was recently killed. The government sends two of its top agents, Leo (played by Andy Lau) and Jin (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro), to find out who the new leader is and put an end to the House of Flying Daggers once and for all.
Jin goes undercover as a playboy, and his first stop is a brothel called Peony Pavilion. He is immediately drawn to a blind dancer named Mei (played by Ziyi Zhang). Jin gets a little rough with her, and soon Leo and several other government soldiers are on the scene. Despite being blind, Mei is a formidable fighter, and she nearly ends up killing Leo with his own sword. She is quickly placed under arrest, which gives Jin the perfect opportunity to spring her from jail and pretend to be on her side.
While Jin and Mei are on the run, Jin leaves clues for the government soldiers so Leo can contact him. Both Leo and Jin start to suspect that Mei is the daughter of the slain leader of House of Flying Daggers, and that she is headed back to HOFD headquarters. The government sees that as the perfect opportunity to put an end to the group; they even stage a few pretend attacks on Jin and Mei to avoid raising suspicion with Mei. However, things start to go seriously downhill for Jin. First, the government decides he is expendable. Then Mei decides to go her own way without Jin. Then Jin realizes he is in love with Mei and doesn't want to leave her. He now has a serious dilemma on his hands. Should he remain loyal to the government that now considers him expendable? Should he pursue a relationship with Mei? What will happen if Mei finds out he works for the government?
Keep in mind, I haven't touched on quite a few of the plot points, but to even reveal those plot points would be to give away spoilers, which I am not in the habit of doing. Suffice it to say that there are probably a dozen different twists to the plot. Some of them are genuinely surprising, while others make no sense at all. Overall, the movie is visually impressive, but the storyline is either confusing or nonexistent throughout the movie. Most of the movie reminded me of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I won't go so far as to say that this is a ripoff of that movie, but I would have to say that Crouching Tiger is a better movie. Director Yimou Zhang (who also directed Hero) does an excellent job with action sequences and creating certain moods, but his treatment of dialogue needs some polishing, and the script for this movie (which he co-wrote) needed a little punching up to make the story move a little faster. (The movie's 120-minute running time bordered on tedious.) Also, I noticed that the quality of the acting varied from scene to scene. Some scenes were believable; others were silly and it was obvious that everyone was trying to act.
Bottom line, if you want to be dazzled visually and aren't bothered by a storyline that's lacking in depth and momentum, you will probably enjoy this movie.