Zhang Yimou's Hero will forever remain a benchmark for Chinese cinema. It was visually inventive, and told a heartfelt story through strong thematic undercurrents. The gorgeous visuals, the emotional core, and the strong characterization has, much in the vein of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger...
, managed to bring a new light to martial arts cinema. Yimou's follow up to Hero, House of Flying Daggers, is even more emotionally mature, and brings the same calm respectability to wuxia films.
At the end of the Tang dynasty, a revolutionary group known as Flying Daggers is challenging the Emperor's authority, and trying to bring justice to the peasants. On finding out that an operative of the group may be hiding in a local entertainment house, local policemen Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) try to find out more. They expose and arrest a beautiful blind dancer called Mei (Zhang Ziyi).
It is made apparent that Mei is the daughter of the erstwhile leader of Flying Daggers who was killed some years back by Leo. To find out the whereabouts of the groups, and to arrest or kill the new leader, Jin goes undercover and concocts an escape plan to flee with Mei, who, as Leo and Jin presume, will lead them to the new leader. Traveling across the country and facing fake as well as real dangers, Jin and Mei fall in love. They finally make it to their destination, and deception upon deception is unveiled, with the twists coming fast and breathless.
In the traditions of the wuxia genre, everyone is capable of elegant and impossible stunts and sword-fighting, and the action has a fair dollop of ballet-like fights, and a lot of CGI supported daggers, which are, of course, flying. Many action sequence are thematically linked to Mei's dance skills, while the climax sees brutal sword-fighting and hard-nosed hack and slash. It's much more action packed than Yimou's earlier films and rarely stops to give you a breather.
But when it does, it gives you character arcs to savor and linger in. Takeshi Kaneshiro is the film's strongest point as the cocksure policeman who slowly loses his confidence as he keeps on falling hopelessly in love with Mei. He has a presence and talent that he makes optimum use of. Andy Lau as the stern and serious of the policemen has less to do until the last half hour, where he overplays his part to some extent.
Pity, as Zhang Ziyi's portrayal of a sometimes tough, sometimes besotted Mei, is so spot on that it almost steals the film from everyone. Her pivotal role in the climax underlines her strengths as an actress, and she comes out on her own as a main lead.
Unlike Hero, this film is not about themes, but about real people. There is a love story that is at the center of this film, and populating it are characters that are as frail, colorful, distraught and, in the end, given to unexplainable deeds as only human beings are. You are thoroughly convinced of the emotional bond that two people share and their journey through the affectional quagmire.
It is a strongly humane film, until the climactic fisticuffs. That is mostly where the film tends to get overboard and a bit silly with its antics. There is a certain leeway you give characters in a wuxia film, but here it is just stretched beyond your liking. Characters die, then get up again to utter their final lines, and then get up again, and again! It gets to the point where you just start shaking your head in incredulity.
You can give a wuxia film its near flying swordsmen, but sometimes, the film just keeps on piling up the bad guys while showing us a handful. For example, four men attack Mei in a flower field. She disposes of them, but there are four more. And four more, and four more. It's just bizarre.
Nevertheless, the action is fast-paced, lovingly choreographed by Siu-Tung Ching, and a pleasure to watch. The cinematography by Zhao Xiaoding is powerful, and makes strong use of colors to tell an immortal fantasy. The mix of action and storytelling is harmoniously balanced, and you quite enjoy every moment of the film.
Yimou's follow up to Hero is a fairytale love story, unique in texture, colorful, delicately balanced, exquisitely shot, and quintessentially Chinese. This is a film that comes across as touching and moving, and resonates with the fantasy world it creates. If you are a wuxia fan, or if you are a fan of a story well told, and can digest the wuxia disbelief, this is a must watch treat for you.