The Yimou dynasty
Ziyi Zhang and ‘cinematic legerdemain’ give Flying Daggers its wings
It’s 859 A.D. in ancient China, the Tang Dynasty is in decline, and a rebel group known as the House of Flying Daggers is fighting a Robin Hood-style battle against the corrupt wealthy classes. Two warriors in the dynasty police become involved in the pursuit of a blind courtesan who may have rebel connections.
That’s the basic plot situation in Zhang Yimou’s flashy new martial-arts epic, and none of it really matters much. Or rather, it wouldn’t were it not also a pretext for several things that do matter a good deal in this particular case—the cinematic legerdemain of its several set-piece sequences, Yimou’s painterly approach to landscape and setting, several stretches of visual fantasy that have a formal beauty akin to abstract painting and/or music, and the presence of the tiny, dynamically iconic actress Ziyi Zhang.
Overall, Flying Daggers may not be as thrilling or as satisfying as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it does have its own special kind of beauty and aesthetic intensity. Yimou serves up martial-arts action aplenty, and here the improbable and spectacular exploits, staples of the genre that customarily have little in the way of real dramatic substance, become dance-like elements (and near-abstract forms) foregrounded in a way that might put them closer to the experimental abstractions of Jordan Belson and Stan Brakhage than to the conventional action movie.
The film’s already-celebrated set pieces—the “Echo Game” in a palatial brothel and the elaborately orchestrated flying, chopping and spearing in birch and bamboo forests—are especially striking, and their appeal may be even greater for non-fans than for many fans of martial-arts flicks. Yimou has taken the implicit ritual element of the martial-arts movies and made it into a kind of ceremony that even the quasi-uninitiated can appreciate.
Nevertheless, there definitely are actual characters in Flying Daggers, and the three stars—Ziyi Zhang as the suspect courtesan, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau as the two warriors—are integral to the film’s grave, detached emotionality. And Ziyi Zhang is a particularly memorable beneficiary of the fiercely heroic portraiture that Yimou lavishes on his chief players.