Zhang Yimou has tasted blood. Following his surprise hit "Hero," the first martial arts movie by the Chinese auteur best known for his tasteful dramas, Yimou is back with another wire-fu adventure full of gorgeously photographed fights and overblown melodrama. And once again, the former art house darling appears lost.
If you thought the fight scenes in "Hero" were the greatest thing you've ever seen, you will find plenty to like in "House of Flying Daggers." There is a dancing game that involves hitting a circle of drums with overlong sleeves, there's a fight in a field of wild flowers, and of course, there is the inescapable crossing of swords while flitting around a bamboo forest.
The actors are as pretty as the locations, cinematography, and choreography. Zhang Ziyi is beautiful and aloof, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, some of the biggest stars of current Asian cinema, have movie-star perfect looks, but we never get much of a sense of any of the characters before they're off killing armies of charging soldiers and each other. Their prowess with the sword has to stand in for characterization.
"House of Flying Daggers" is most enjoyable when it plays as a romantic comedy between the mysterious escaped prisoner Mei (Ziyi) and Jin (Kaneshiro), a policeman who wins her trust in order to infiltrate the Robin-Hood-like organization that gives the film its title. After a series of confusing surprises and double-crosses, the movie tips into melodrama, with endless overwrought moments of departure and return -- the heroes seem to be leaving and coming back to each other more times than I could count. This involves many shots of horses in slow motion.
Finally, it becomes clear that all Zhang Yimou really wants to do is stage beautiful death scenes. "Hero" had more than I could count, and he doesn't hold back here, either. Too bad it all feels generic. It's impossible to shake the feeling that Zhang Yimou desperately wishes he, not Ang Lee, had made "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Unfortunately, his narrative doesn't have any of that movie's zing. The next logical step for Yimou is to give up on plot altogether and simply film sword fights and death scenes set to haunting Chinese music. MTV might be interested.