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'Daggers' Flies Off The Screen

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page WE39

IN "HOUSE of Flying Daggers," the slow-motion trajectory of a small bean, hurled from a police captain's hand, is a spectacular thing. It's a stunning, moving image, like a hummingbird caught in action. In this remarkable follow-up to "Hero," Chinese director Zhang Yimou understands perfectly that the small can be epic and awe-inspiring. And, by the way, he knows how to get big, too. More on the amazing bamboo tree scene, and other visual wonders, in a minute.

Back to the bean.

Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ziyi Zhang are striking in Zhang Yimou's beautifully choreographed martial-arts film "House of Flying Daggers." (Bai Xiao Yan -- Sony Pictures Classics)

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We are in China, circa 859 A.D., when the corrupt Tang dynasty rules the land. The captain Leo (Andy Lau), charged with rooting out members of a subversive group, the House of Flying Daggers, has invaded a brothel to capture Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a blind dancer suspected of being one of the dreaded circle. Leo corrals her in the center of the receiving room, where she stands amid a circle of drums on posts.

He playfully agrees to let her go if she can perform the "Echo Game." For this ritual, he tosses a bean against one of the drums. She has to indicate which drum he struck. The first bean ricochets from drum skin to drum skin. But Mei is not fooled. She flicks a strand of her long, pink scarf as if it were a diaphanous whiplash and identifies the correct drum. Bong!

Leo throws another bean. And another. Without fail, she strikes the right drum each time. Leo then tosses out an entire bowl of beans, which cascade and bounce everywhere. With gasp-inducing skill, she whacks each and every drum skin hit. Captain Leo, meet your match.

No surprise, then, that Mei is a member of the Flying Daggers. Or that she's overpowered and imprisoned. But Mei is sprung in a bold rescue by Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the belligerent drunkard who was soliciting Mei moments before Leo and his goons burst in. Jin, also known as Wind, turns out to be an accomplished warrior, too. He leads her out of trouble on horseback and into the wilds.

Jin wants to help her return to her fellow revolutionaries. But she's wary of his motives. Nonetheless, she has little choice but to accept his help. During their flight from the Tang authorities, they are never far from another encounter with hostile parties. Each time, they persevere with agile teamwork. In their moments of respite, they get close to passion with one another, but Mei can't quite trust him yet.

Zhang's film, which he wrote with Bin Wang and Feng Li, is an almost soap-operatic fairy tale about warriors and lovers, romance and deception. You never know for sure who's telling the truth, especially when a formidable third party comes into the story. But little by little, Mei comes to trust her heart rather than her well-disciplined head. Is she right? In this entertainingly twisty-turny saga, you can never be sure until the final frame.

Zhang, whose extraordinary list of films include "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Red Sorghum," mixes old-school inventiveness with cutting-edge special effects. The result is a visual style that blows away most bigger-budget Hollywood movies. Curvy blades, courtesy of the warriors from the House of Flying Daggers, come howling toward you like something between a boomerang and a guided missile. And like the victims of those projectiles, you'll simply watch them hit the target with hypnotized resignation and wonder.

The choreography by Siu-Tung Ching is even more striking. It comes to fruition in a battle of the bamboos, in which Mei and Jin fight troops who are all straddling the highly bendable tops of graceful bamboo trees. The bad guys swoop down, still riding the bamboos, swinging swords, then they swoop back up again. You almost expect the company of actors to spontaneously applaud themselves when the fighting's finally done.

As always, Zhang's affinity for color is simply the best in the world. The reds, greens and whites in this movie are luscious and vivid through cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao's lenses. Zhang understands that, no matter how many expensive computers and technicians he has at his command, the small details are really the big details. And that's the mark of a true artist, as opposed to our overpopulation of successful hacks.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (PG-13, 119 minutes) -- Contains chaste sexual scenes and martial arts violence. In Mandarin Chinese with subtitles. Area theaters.

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