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With: Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro
Written by: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts violence, and some sexuality
Language: Mandarin With English subtitles
Running Time: 119
Date: 05/19/2004

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'House' Weeping

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Having begun with stately, colorful period pieces (Raise the Red Lantern) and then turning to gritty neo-realism (Not One Less), Chinese director Zhang Yimou has now entered his third career phase, setting his sights on martial arts films. His first effort, Hero, which was released earlier this summer, was a smashing success. His follow-up, House of Flying Daggers, poised to reap the benefits of awards season, comes in as something considerably less.

The plot this time revolves around a bland and confusing love triangle. The secret organization the Flying Daggers is rumored to have a new leader, a blind girl. Captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) finds such a girl, Mei (Zhang Ziyi) working in a brothel. He escorts her cross-country without letting on who he is or what he is doing. But she has a secret of her own, and a past with another soldier, Captain Leo (Andy Lau) , who inevitably comes back into the picture.

While this story sags, Zhang attempts to prop up the rest of the picture with its fight sequences. But lacking the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose rich colors helped define Hero, House of Flying Daggers looks flat and dull. Though the new film is set in a visually striking bamboo forest -- like King Hu's vastly superior A Touch of Zen (1969) -- this film fails to create any visual depth or emotional menace. Trapped within the film's mushy confines, even the fight scenes skip a beat; they're too slow and are often mistimed.

At their worst, Hong Kong pictures tend toward either broad comedy or overcooked sentimentality, and House of Flying Daggers jumps headlong into the latter. The more the movie's characters reveal their "secrets," the less interesting and more forced the movie becomes. Everything comes to a head in a laughable climax that never seems to end.

Without question, House of Flying Daggers is the year's most crushing disappointment, and it's the worst kung fu movie since Sammo Hung's Heart of Dragon (1985).

Note: It has recently come to my attention that part of the problem was the poor projection in the screening room. I'm told that the film actually does have sharp, well-defined visuals; I just couldn't see them properly. Only a future second viewing on a Blu-ray disc will determine whether I need to update my review.

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