Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers (Shí Miàn Mái Fú, 2004) was his second successive foray, following Hero (Yi-ng Xióng, 2002), into the Chinese wuxia martial arts genre popularized by Hong Kong filmmakers. This turn to wuxia was a dramatic shift from Zhang’s earlier, highly artistic and dramatic work, and though it brought him greater exposure and commercial success (as did a similar turn undertaken by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee), it represented a considerable compromise of Zhang Yimou’s artistic virtues.
Although the wuxia films, with their absurd wire-fu action, are mostly seen as escapist fantasies, Zhang’s preceding epic, Hero (which is set some 2200 years ago during the reign of King Ying Zheng, later Emperor Qin Shi Huang), carried with it an additional social and political undercurrent that actually argued against heroic acts of defiance: it is better to put up with a tyrant than to overthrow him and risk sowing the seeds of disunity. Though this message was blissfully overlooked by many viewers, it was rejected by some reviewers, including this one. House of Flying Daggers steers clear of such political commentary and, even with less than half of Hero's budget, focuses more on the action. It, too, is set in historical times, but the tone is lighter (although bloodier), and the emphasis is more on romantic relationships involving the big box-office stars who appear in the film: Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Zhang Ziyi.
The story is set in 859 AD at the close of the Tang dynasty, when government control had largely collapsed and rebel groups had risen in various quarters of China. The image of Robin-Hood-like rebel gangs has long been popular in Chinese – since at least as far back as the 14th century novel Water Margin (Shuĭhŭ Zhuàn, aka Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men Are Brothers). In this film the rebel gang is the Flying Daggers, which has set itself in opposition to the local government. The story has four main sections:
- The Peony Pavilion.
At the outset, two local region police captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who had recently killed the leader of the Flying Daggers, have now been assigned to kill the new leader within ten days. They decide to investigate a blind woman, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), who is working at a local brothel, the Peony Pavilion, but who they believe is actually the daughter of the late leader of the Flying Daggers and is now a spy. After getting permission from the house matron Yee to watching the blind girl dance, they arrest Mei and take her into custody.
- On the Road.
Jin and Leo then arrange a phony jail breakout for Mei in hopes of following her and finding the hideout of the Flying Daggers. Mei escapes to the forest, and Jin, pretending to be a rebel sympathizer, joins her company in the hopes that he can seduce her and learn secrets about the group. Leo and government troops follow the pair at a distance, and they even arrange a phony attack that is beaten back by Jin in order to make things look more authentic to Mei. But after an ensuing attack turns out to be almost deadly, Jin learns from Leo that a ruthless government general has taken over the pursuit from Leo, and this general is willing to sacrifice Jin and Mei, as long as he can find the rebel hideout. Meanwhile Jin and Mei seem to be falling in love, which was not according to plan. When a third ferocious government attack appears to doom Jin and Mei, the Flying Daggers, themselves, show up and rescue them in the nick of time.
- In the House of the Flying Daggers.
At this point many previous deceptions are revealed. Mei is not really blind and is not the daughter of the old leader, but is instead a skilled Flying Dagger warrior. The Peony Pavilion house matron, Yee, turns out to be the local Flying Dagger commander. And Leo turns out to have been a spy for the Flying Daggers all along and has been Mei’s lover. Thus we now see a jealous love triangle between Jin and Leo, both competing for Mei. Yee orders Mei to take Jin away and kill him, but she cannot do it. Alone in the forest, they make love. Jin beseeches her to run away with him to freedom, but her loyalties to Leo and to the Flying Daggers’ cause hold her back. She tells him to go without her, and he rides away.
- The Long Good-bye.
After Jin’s departure, Mei has second thoughts and decides to follow him. Seeing her betrayal from a distance, Leo slings a pair of flying daggers at Mei, who is able to fend off one of them, but is apparently mortally wounded by the other. Jim decides to come back for Mei, and seeing her dying, he fights with Leo. Mei, still alive, stands up and tries to prevent Leo from finishing off Jin. If she pulls the dagger out of her chest to defend Jin, her wound will gush blood and she will die immediately. So the three of them, with life and death hanging in the balance, face each other in an open field, physically mirroring their tortured love triangle. The final act of the tragedy then plays itself out.
Certainly the cinematographic talents of the Zhang and Zhao are the principal crowd-pleasing resources here, and they are on full display over five elaborate scenes that take up fully one-third of the screen time of the film:
- There is a spectacular dance in Section 1 involving Zhang Ziyi playing the “echo game”, which involves her magically flinging her veil at a circular set of drums.
- There are three elaborate fight scenes in Section 2, each of which is creatively presented. The most spectacular is the third one, involving an “aerial” attack from government commandos swinging about in the trees.
- The final fight in Section 4 between Jin and Leo is punctuated by a violent snow storm that appears during the course of the action (the snow storm on the shooting location was unexpected, but Zhang Yimou decided to incorporate it into the scene).
But outside the scope of the superb cinematography, other aspects of House of Flying Daggers have not fared so well. One problematic area is the narrative, itself. This film features the typical combination of an action-oriented thread and a relationship-oriented thread to the plot. The action-oriented thread ostensibly concerns the cause of the Flying Dagger rebels against a presumed corrupt government. But this thread gradually fades away to nothing and seems to have been almost forgotten by the story’s end. At the close of the film, the government troops are supposed to be advancing on to the Flying Daggers hideout. Although, Yee has suggested that the Flying Daggers have organized to trap them, we never find out. The whole storyline on this front has simply been abandoned.
A further narrative drawback is the operatic extravagance of Section 4 of the film. Dramatically, this unbearably long scene almost kills the film and ultimately evokes more ennui than tragedy. It should have been something of a coda, at best, but it goes on for twenty minutes and seems interminable. And the display of Leo’s enraged jealousy and willingness to kill Mei has not been properly motivated, which renders his character repugnant.
So this leaves us only with the relationship thread. Zhang Yimou has admitted that the main theme of this film centered around people who were willing to abandon everything for love . Unfortunately, there is no romantic chemistry developed along this line. The film features four separate dramatic lovemaking attempts involving Mei (only the last one of which goes to completion), but none of them is really convincing, despite good performing by Zhang Ziyi in these scenes. In addition the rapidity with which Mei falls for Jin is hard to believe and is not well motivated. The main problem, though, boils down essentially to the performance of Takeshi Kaneshiro, who was likeable in Red Cliff (Chi Bi, 2008), but doesn’t match up well with what is needed in this film. His portrayal of a lusty vagabond lover lacks even remote credibility, and the same could be said for the sincerity of his passions for Mei. Kaneshiro’s overall performance may actually reflect some ambivalence on Zhang Yimou’s part concerning the degree to which he wanted this film to be essentially a cartoon, with ludicrous, over-the-top performances, as opposed to one with more straight-up roles. Actually, within the narrow narrative confines available to them, both Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi give good and reasonably believable portrayals of their characters (and Zhang Ziyi has the opportunity to display her dance background and to sing the principal song in the film). But Takeshi Kaneshiro is just a bit too unbelievable, even for this fantasy. Samurai Jack he is not.
Further considering the relationship angle, it is worth noting that a key subtext to this theme is the idea of personal deception, or perhaps we should say, human authenticity. All of the principal characters, Jim, Leo, Mei, and Yee, are constantly dissembling and pretending to be people they are not:
- Yee is variously presented as a brothel matron, the leader of the Flying Daggers, and then merely a commander of the Flying Daggers.
- Mei is variously a blind dancer, the daughter of Flying Daggers leader, and a warrior of the Flying Daggers.
- Jin is variously a police captain, a renegade recruit for the Flying Daggers, and a carefree wanderer beholden to noone.
- Leo is variously a police captain and a spy for the Flying Daggers.
On balance we have to say the House of Flying Daggers is pretty lightweight fare for Zhang Yimou. He admitted so, himself, when he remarked 
“To me they’re [his two wuxia films] just pure entertainment. I expected more discussions of my previous work, most of which is artistic and has a deeper subject matter, a lot of humanity – whereas these two are just commercial.”Taken on it’s own escapist terms, House of Flying Daggers has its moments, mostly when Zhang Ziyi is on screen, and it is indeed superior to Hero. But this kind of film, profitable though it may be, is not best suited for displaying Zhang Yimou’s great artistic strengths. To see how wonderfully he engages all aspects of the film medium to portray profound human experiences, you need to look elsewhere in his cinematic oeuvre.
- In fact this theme contrasts so strikingly with “Hero”, which advocated the sacrifice of all personal values for the sake of social unity, that one might suspect Zhang was reacting to the critical reception of that film. But he has claimed (see ) that the scenarios of both Hero and House of Flying Daggers were written at the same time. In any case, the abandonment of the action plot is evidently intentional.
- Nick Bradshaw, “Zhang Yimou on House of Flying Daggers”, Timeout Film Guide, Fourteenth Edition (2006), p. 526.