Love is a weapon, but what kind? The boldly intentioned sword? The deceptive dagger? Or an unforeseen arrow? Like a weapon, the power of "House of Flying Daggers" is in the simple violent beauty of it. The plot, a political struggle between a group of Robin Hood-esque rebels and powerful government, is typical, and provides the set dressing for a powerful love story of hidden intentions, powerful uncontrollable emotions and repressed feelings. Our main characters here are pawns, played with spectacular layers of subtlety by Hong Kong's best actors, the everyman Andy Lau in a surprising turn, Takeshi Kaneshiro in one of his finest performances this side of "Fallen Angels", and Zhang Ziyi who performs a unique balance of chaste sexiness and brutal violence. All three play the parts forced upon them by the powers to whom they are loyal; their hearts, their politics & to each other. Like all great films, all of their truths and loyalties will be tested.
On the surface it is relatively simple, but the direction by Zhang Yimou(of "The Road Home" fame, also starring Zhang Ziyi in her first theatrical role) makes it a wonderfully deep and riveting emotional journey for each character. Our two male leads Lau & Kaneshiro inhabit roles that are plain and genre stereotypes, soldiers for an unseen general who is crushing the local rebels. Their initial scenes are those typical to the genre, as they play against each other we understand Kaneshiro follows Lau's lead and that Lau is sending him on an undercover mission vital to the omnipresent Empire. Kaneshiro in the guise of a drunken fool saves a beautiful rebel soldier (Ziyi, who is undercover as a courtesan) from imprisonment.
Kaneshiro and Ziyi go on the run and end up falling in love, but at the cost of their loyalties to their respective politics, and of course this is a very bloody road. Lau is largely unseen for much of the middle section of this film, as he pushes Kaneshiro and Ziyi further from harm's way and more and more serious trouble seems to find them. Kaneshiro and Ziyi battle their way to safety but are too caught up in each other to think about what may be happening outside of their little world. They are definitely in love, but like all love, to be in it seems simple, and it is very much so to our sympathetic protagonist Kaneshiro(also he's given good reason to flee and never look back, by the confused soliders chasing him, perhaps a weakness of the film). The plot can be a bit unbelievable under close inspection as to why Kaneshiro wouldn't suspect something was up earlier with his colleague Lau, when he is being consistently chased and attacked, regardless of Lau's flimsy explanations(it's a true weakness of the film). Perhaps the saving grace is that we all have been in this situation, perhaps not being perpetually chased by sword wielding goons, but we've all been blind in love, not being able to see the forest for the trees(literally here). And it's not just Kaneshiro, every person in our trio of leads is like a horse with blinders, they are all in love, in different ways, and they follow their heart, each to their own detriment.
It can be argued that the film is simple and predictable, and for a Wuxia film, perhaps it's too heavy on the romance. But has a Wuxia film ever had such a wonderfully acted & written romance balanced with such graceful martial arts and action? I would find that hard to believe and I would like examples, because honestly, if such a film exists, I'd love to see it. Not to mention the scenes of beautifully choreographed violence are some of the most wonderfully shot, colored & composed images committed to celluloid. Zhang Ziyi shows herself as a truly graceful athlete, pulling off some insane flips and jumps and backbreaking dance moves that the camera wonderfully accentuates. Likewise Kaneshiro & Lau do not slouch in this department either, although their moves are limited to acrobatic swordplay, it's brutal hack'n'slash that (again) the great cinematography helps feel fresh and classic.
The premise of the film is simple, but it's message is deep and vital. Our characters have real feelings that are palpably present here and reveal their true depths over the course of the film. They are all being forced into situations by their respective establishments that do not care about their feelings. Feelings and individuality have no place here, but our characters are flawed and human, and cannot help themselves to feel desire, hate and lust. In one of the film's most powerful scenes we see what happens when a lead character cannot control his emotions, and his animal needs, no matter how depraved, kick in and he commits a horrible act. We see him in a completely different light for the rest of the film, loathe him, but at the same time, I felt pity for him and his situation. Like all other characters here, he wants to love and be loved in return, but the world gets in his way.
Individuality vs. Establishment is a complex theme, one that is not given an easy answer. It's a favorite of Yimou's to explore, in almost every one of his films, including his other two Wuxia films, cold-blooded "Hero" and the byzantine "Curse of the Golden Flower". What makes "House of Flying Daggers" exceptional from these other two is that it doesn't stray from Yimou's traditional focus on character and emotion. It keeps things simple and heartfelt, and all the more powerful for it. I knew lovers Kaneshiro and Ziyi were headed for tragedy, and as a viewer, Yimou made me really not want it to happen. I wanted them to be a "carefree wind", but it couldn't be. Still, I couldn't look away.
4 1/2 flying daggers out of 5.
*I wanted to leave a section here for a comment on the musical score by Shigeru Umebayashi with powerful singer Kathleen Battle. I found it powerful and rich, really digging deep into the hearts and spirits of our characters in their tragic romance. It's definitely worth a listen and a download at itunes if you liked the film. Definitely one of my favorite "operatic" scores.