Zhang Yimou already enjoys a certain notoriety in arthouse circles for ravishing dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, but he burst into the mainstream this summer with Hero, the long-delayed and eagerly awaited martial-arts spectacular. While House of Flying Daggers is hardly Hero’s sequel, it negotiates similar territory, combining romance, lush cinematography and enough martial arts to satisfy even the most zealous fight-enthusiast.
The film opens with a dance by Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) followed by a thrilling competition called the Echo Game, in which a police captain throws small pieces of food at various cloth gong-like devices. Then Ziyi, as the captivating and ostensibly blind showgirl Mei, uses her long fabric-encased arms to replicate his shots. It’s a stunning set-piece and takes advantage of Yimou’s graceful use of colored fabric (think Ju Dou). From there, the film becomes a chase movie with the dashing, daring Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Mei trying to evade government forces.
For the next hour and a half, Yimou effortlessly tempers his characters’ ferocious martial-arts capabilities with heartfelt emotion—something missing from Hero. Ziyi’s acting wows (as expected) and she exhibits real chemistry with Kaneshiro. But the final act is an embarrassingly long battle sequence wherein fall changes to winter before your eyes. Yimou is clearly reaching for an operatic climax, but what might work onstage—with singing and a full orchestra—turns flat when translated into a silver-screen feature full of close-ups. The grandiose devolves into cliché, and the tragic turns comical. On three different occasions, the audience around me burst into guffaws during this final scene, and for good reason.
Yimou knows how to combine color and set design to breathtaking effect, and assemble a top-notch cast. If only the film’s final act delivered on the script's initial promise.