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'House of Flying Daggers': Symphony in Swords

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C01

The experience of "House of Flying Daggers" isn't like going to a movie so much as going to a truly superb brothel. That is, pleasure is available in every room, in every configuration, in all possibilities, in polymorphic abandon. It doesn't treat you gently, it ravishes you.

I should add that all this ravishing is uniquely chaste as befits a PG-13 film: It's the ravishment of romance, adventure, nobility, betrayal, all those big, primary-colored old-fashioned movie emotions. It has but one glimpse of a woman's body, and not even the whole sublime thing, just her velvety-smooth, ivory back, with a suggestion of musculature and complexity beneath, framed in a rush of tumbled raven hair. Did I fall in love or what? That mythic back happens to belong to the actress Ziyi Zhang, the tomboy heroine of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," in what has to be the year's most dominating star turn. Zhang has spunk, grace, beauty and presence. You ought to see her throw a dagger.


Ziyi Zhang makes her way through a bamboo forest, pursued by spear-throwing ninjas in the magical "House of Flying Daggers." (Bai Xiao Yan -- Sony Pictures Entertainment)

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A romantic martial arts rhapsody set in medieval China, where beautiful people possess martial arts skills that transcend time, space, gravity, physics -- and also wear really cool hats, it will most likely be compared to that same "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." But it's better -- more complete, more powerful, sadder, richer, wiser, more fights, more horses, more Ziyi Zhang. You know, um: "better."

The director is Zhang Yimou, who last tried for a big action hit with this summer's "Hero," an opulent production starring Jet Li that some, myself included, saw as an apologia for Mao, surprising coming from Zhang, who'd stood for opposition to the regime in many of his earlier, brilliant pictures, such as "Red Sorghum" and "Raise the Red Lantern." Was Zhang selling out, or do we westerners, who know nothing, even have the right to raise the question?

It doesn't matter. In this film, his heart is squarely righteous, set against a corrupt central power, for it turns out that the "House of Flying Daggers" isn't a brothel (there is a brothel and it's called the House of Peonies, and if you know the address, please e-mail me) but an insurrectionist group, led by women. As the movie opens, two cops have been assigned to infiltrate and destroy the group, which has reestablished itself after the loss of its leader.

The two officers are the happy-go-lucky handsome boy named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his supervisor, the more dour Inspector Leo (Andy Lau). Leo sends Jin to the House of Peonies, where, rumor has it, the new dancing girl, Mei (Zhang), may be a House of Flying Daggers agent, even if she's blind. Thus Jin, pretending to be drunk on plum wine, orders the girl to dance for him.

Thus: rapture.

Where does this stuff come from? The movement seems to connect with nothing, not Fred 'n' Ginger, not tap, not Kabuki, not any form of dance entertainment, Occidental or Oriental, classical or popular, waltz or break, but only with the director's id. As conceived by Zhang (the director) and danced by Zhang (the actress, a trained dancer), it's audacious, incredible and mesmerizing. The blind young woman stands in a circle of drums, mounted horizontally on tripods. The disguised police officer picks up nuts and thwacks them -- you know, that finger-flick thing you use to launch paper footballs through imaginary goalposts -- across the space and bangs them against a drum skin; she reads the sound and flings her arm toward it, unleashing 20 feet of weighted sleeve, which zips across the space and bangs the drum loudly. The faster the cop thwacks, the faster she flings the sleeve, until the whole conceit approaches physical anarchy set to mind-boggling percussive rhythm as performed by two of the most beautiful people on Earth, and if you're not swept by bliss, check for a pulse. You may already be dead. But don't panic. The movie is so much fun, it will resurrect you.

Of course the whole set piece is made possible by computer imaging, used here as brilliantly as any filmmaker since Peter Jackson in the "Lord of the Rings" films. The sequence shows how totally Zhang uses the modern resources of cinema, and how vividly he balances them: the star power of the beautiful Zhang, the haughty masculinity of Kaneshiro, the computer-driven imagery, the brilliance of the color, the detail of the sets, the thumping of the music, the four red dots on Zhang's alabaster forehead.

But that only sets up yet another astonishing set piece, when she is arrested after a dazzling sword battle with Inspector Leo.

The plot continues, though it's the weakest thing in the movie, essentially a chase, in which Jin and Mei -- he rescues her as a way of infiltrating the revolutionary cell -- flee, pursued through a lustrous autumn forest by soldiers and Inspector Leo, acting as Jin's control. People meet and connect rather too easily among the burnished trees, yes, but don't be upset at its juvenility; you're still getting your money's worth, as in a scene where you ride with Jin's four arrows as they vector through trees and find four men who are assaulting the spunky Mei. That gag was thought up in 1991's "Robin Hood," with Kevin Costner as the inspired archer, but here it's doubled, and delivered with such brio and force it takes your breath away.

Then there's the bamboo forest sequence. It should already be legendary. The concept is simply dazzling and shocking in its originality. I can't even begin to see how it originated, as it, too, seems to come from nowhere. Jin and Mei, in flight, find themselves in a bamboo forest, a green glade dominated by the vertical shafts of the grass, which wobble back and forth as if there's weight up in them. And there is: In each lurks a ninja, each an expert at hurling a bamboo spear and gliding, tree to tree, to a more advantageous position. So you have the quarry-couple moving desperately over ground, while above the ninjas attempt to pierce them with spears, and magically, silently, keep up with their progress. The spears rain down with the precision of smart bombs, and the hero and heroine dodge with the agility of matadors, the whole melody increasing as it goes relentlessly onward, until it's so exciting you begin to worry about a little spot of myocardial infarction interrupting the fun.

The indecently logical might complain about certain plot twists that feel arbitrary, or about the trajectory of flung daggers that go beyond boomerang into the realm of the optically guided antitank missile. But pay them no heed, for they don't get it. The story isn't the story here, nor are the flying daggers. The sheer joy of letting go as a tale overwhelms your senses and drives the known world away -- that's the story.

House of Flying Daggers (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sword and martial arts violence.


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