An Empire of Two

Zhang Yimou takes the politics out of his new historical romance. But the movie also feels like opera with the music taken out.

Is this the greatest film about foliage ever made? Shot in the lush forests and parks of China and Ukraine, Zhang Yimou's latest martial-arts history piece ought to include the leaf wranglers in its opening credits. Among the autumnal colors, you haven't seen red, green, and yellow deployed so exquisitely in any movie this year (well—not since Zhang's Hero finally reached town in August). House of Flying Daggers, which opens Friday, Dec. 17, at the Neptune and other theaters, is never less than beautiful to watch. Thanks to the swaying green bamboo forests, parchment-barked aspen groves, and a riot of leaves overhead, it's like paging through a picture book of wonderful landscapes. It would also make about as much sense paging back to front as front to back, but more on that later.

Apart from the trees, there are some human stars, too: Zhang Ziyi, of Hero (made by Zhang Yimou two years ago, but only now a hit in the U.S.); Takeshi Kaneshiro, familiar here from Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels and Chungking Express; and Canto-pop icon Andy Lau of the Infernal Affairs movies . Though secret identities shift and some names change, we'll call them Mei, Jin, and Captain Leo, respectively. In a mythical ninth-century setting, Jin and Leo are cops in the teetering late Tang Dynasty government. Jin goes undercover as an idle swordsman (code name Wind) to penetrate the Flying Daggers band of rebels, among whom Mei turns out to be the most lethal, and beautiful, assassin.

No surprise—Mei and Jin fall in love, each one of them torn by allegiance to competing sides. Like the triumvirate of assassins in Hero, you expect a lot of speeches about individual happiness versus national unity, perhaps employing natural metaphors (the mighty forest is made of many trees, and so forth). What is a surprise, then, is that all talk of politics falls by the pastoral wayside. Some evil general is mentioned, but then he's forgotten. Troops advance on the rebels' arboreal hideout, then nothing happens. There's little of Hero's martial pageantry here—it's all skirmishes, not set pieces. Harkening back to Zhang's earlier historical dramas like Raise the Red Lantern, where there was plenty of smoldering romance but no chopsocky wirework, Daggers becomes a pure passion play; nothing makes sense except emotion, and gravity goes out the window.

MEI MAKES HER entrance in an opulent brothel wearing dancing attire; she's there to entertain Jin (in disguise), but we're the real audience. Her elaborately embroidered outfit, the intricately carved and painted woodwork, her backing band of blue-gowned beauties—the whole song and dance routine is as over-the-top enthralling as any classic MGM musical. One swift costume change later, and Mei is dressed to kill with flowing gown and long pink sleeves that can wield a sword. Suddenly Captain Leo is there (don't even ask why) to test her with a circle of drums because—bear with me now—Mei is blind, and her hearing is hyperacute. Leo flings beans at the drums, and Mei follows their flight and rhythm with her sensational sleeves. Why the hearing test? Why beans? Again, it makes no sense, but it sure is fun to watch.

The rest of the film proceeds in something of the same fashion. Jin busts Mei out of jail and hauls her to the forest; there, pursuing soldiers attack at regular intervals—i.e., whenever things slow down and we need a little action. In between, Jin and Mei balance their mutual attraction and distrust. In a precious scene, he gives her privacy to bathe by walking off into the woods, tapping his sword to produce little pings by which she, batlike, can monitor his distance. The gag goes further, and that's where you no longer care about the logic—it's just too charming.

And when the government troops attack, all rules of causality are suspended. Mei and Jin fight in midair, with swords and bodies occupying some fourth dimension of physics. When she tosses her flying daggers, they're like the remote-control drones over Iraq—veering and pausing in swoops and starts with the camera following every arc. As an archer, Jin gets the full arrow-cam effect made famous in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, then goes it even better. Bamboo spears rain down like javelins on the fleeing lovers; more knives swarm like bees. The effect is overwhelming and, finally, numbing—like the arrow-blackened skies of Hero. Just because the computers have gotten more powerful doesn't mean the movie is any better.

WHILE THE EFFECTS in Daggers could be called more of the same, as compared to Hero, the romance is less of the same (fewer characters, fewer relationships), and that's a good thing. The movie has an intense specificity to it; Jin and Mei's passion is all that matters. You get the sense that director Zhang is constantly shifting the colors, costumes, and seasons like so many scene changes in an opera (indeed, he recently staged Turandot in Beijing). After Mei's opening ditty, there's no more singing in Daggers, which makes the film a kind of pantomime opera: Intense feeling is communicated by eye, not mouth; and the tacit arias between Mei and Jin all follow the same essential operatic melody—doomed love.

As a result, when the action stops in Daggers, it really stops. The movie succumbs to a certain static, pictorial quality—as though Mei and Jin have walked into the spotlight at the edge of the stage, prepared to sing, and . . . they . . . never . . . quite . . . do. ("You and I are just pawns on the chessboard," says Jin, which might sound a little more tragic with a tune set to it.) Their big emotional moments amount to a series of U-turns in the forest; one leaves, and the other just stands there, unsure of whether to follow. Even the sex—al fresco, like almost all the film (one long camping trip for Mei and Jin)—seems rooted to the ground.

But like Hero, which ultimately bogged down in its patriotic history lessons, the movie is simply too gorgeous to miss. You can see the two films as complementary portraits of self-sacrifice—one for country, the other for love, both exquisitely drawn.

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