This year, for the traditional Christmas-Day-Eve movie I saw House of Flying Daggers. I enjoyed almost every bit of it and found it to be nearly a complete return-to-form for Zhang Yimou, the genius "Fifth Generation" Chinese filmmaker who directed it. While his recent crossover hit Hero had the typical aesthetic beauty of Zhang's films, I was troubled by the seeming authoritarianism of its implied political message. Flying Daggers takes place in too much of a fantasy world to have any implicit message for China's leaders today. In essence, it's a combination of Zhang's earlier, melodramatic mode in films such as Shanghai Triad, with his current foray into martial arts epics.
The film takes place in the waning days of the Tang dynasty, in a China riven by factionalism and civil war. The plot concerns Mei, a blind dancer played by the incomparable Zhang Ziyi; the latest in a line of icons of Chinese beauty whom Zhang has directed, starting with Gong Li. Mei works at the most beautiful, ornate brothel ever portrayed on film, but two policemen - Leo (played by Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau) and Jin (played by the Half-Japanese Half-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro) think that in reality she's the daughter of the leader of the Flying Daggers, a group of assassins at war with the government. They move to arrest her but only after playing a round of "the echo game"; a too-complicated-to-explain activity that is simultaneously one of the coolest and most ridiculous things I've ever seen on film. After capturing her Jin and Leo then decide that a better idea would be to have Jin break her out, pretend that he sympathizes with the House of Flying Daggers, and try to use her to get to the leader of the group. Thus begins an (uncharacteristically for a Chinese film) complicated series of double, triple, and quadruple crosses and identity shifts. The enjoyable, somewhat film noir like plot takes the characters on a perilous journey north, culminating in sword play in the snow which is actually filmed in the Ukraine.
The whole thing is ridiculous, melodramatic, absurd, great fun, and absolutely beautiful. Zhang's film always have beautiful cinematography, with every frame composed like a beautiful painting, and this one is no exception. As opposed to Hero's lovely use of simple, solid colors, this time he has chosen a motif of ornate patterns to unify every scene in the film. I only wish American films could pay half this attention to aesthetics, and could be half this sincere and this bold.
If you're familiar with the style and attitude of Chinese martial arts epics (And no, Crouching Tiger doesn't count.) then you should love this. But be forewarned; if you are ever at all prone to having an "Oh yeah. Like that would happen" reaction to any detail of a film, or are one of those smug, cynical types who think it sophisticated to deplore melodrama, then this is most definitely not for you.