It's AD 859, and China's fading Tang Dynasty is locked in conflict with rebel groups, primarily the mysterious House Of Flying Daggers. Tang captains Leo (Lau) and Jin (Kaneshiro) are charged with capturing the House's new leader, and suspect that a young dancer at the Peony Pavilion, blind girl Mei (Zhang), may be their key to success.
It's amazing what you can do with bamboo. You can use it to make furniture, turn your garden into something Alan Titchmarsh would be proud of, or feed pandas. Plus, it tastes great in a stir-fry and, if you're a filmmaker working in the wushu genre, it's an almost obligatory component of any good action scene.
Ang Lee was the first to set Western jaws sagging with a bamboo-forest fight sequence (in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but Zhang Yimou, the second Chinese filmmaker to successfully export wushu to our multiplexes, with Hero, trumps even Lee's anti-gravity cane-clash in his Hero follow-up, House Of Flying Daggers. Clearly concerned that his last movie's fight sequences, while astonishing, neglected the versatile plant, he's gone all-out here, sending an entire army into a forest, leaping from shoot to shoot, and even getting his combatants to slice off segments of cane and hurl them through the air as deadly weapons. Like we said, it's amazing what you can do with bamboo.
Impressive use of panda-feed aside, anyone who's seen Hero and Crouching Tiger will be on very familiar territory with Flying Daggers. It stars Ziyi Zhang - the actress formerly known as Zhang Ziyi - while the story involves intense romance, tangled yet gossamer-delicate webs of deception and tearjerking tragedy. Once again, Zhang Yimou reveals a great eye for lush locations, from the opulent interiors of the Peony Pavilion, to a shimmering, emerald-green lily pond, to expansive, undulating, golden fields. And the fighting is once more beautiful, balletic and so meticulously executed it almost makes you want to cry, whether you're watching blind dancer Mei (Ziyi Zhang) twirl a blade using her unfeasibly long, billowing silk sleeves in the applause-worthy 'Echo Game' scene, or heroic charmer Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) take down multiple opponents with some nifty bow-and-arrow action.
This is a far more intimate movie than Hero, less concerned with grand designs, more with personal portraits; Zhang Yimou is even bold enough at one point to show us the beginning of a huge, decisive battle, then ignore it completely to zoom in on the bitter love story that throbs at the film's centre and the far tinier conflict that it precipitates. This isn't entirely a bad move, especially when it all revolves around yet another pristine performance from Ziyi Zhang, an actress so dedicated she spent a month with a blind girl by way of preparation.
Yet, while narrowing his focus, Zhang allows repetition to creep in, batting his protagonists back and forth between the same few (admittedly gorgeous) locations without Hero's neat narrative-trick excuse for doing the same. The various twists and revelations are also laid on too thick and packed in too tightly towards the end, weighing down the final act and matting out the glittering promise of the first hour.
For this reason, Flying Daggers stands as marginally inferior to Hero. But only marginally. And besides, that's not really the comparison we should be thinking about. The fact remains that, in the past year, Zhang Yimou - a director whose output was once strictly Soho-arthouse fare - has not once, but twice delivered an action movie that outdoes most of the CG-slathered, budget-heavy slam-bangers hurled out of Hollywood. And for that alone Zhang should be proud, while we - not to mention the world's bamboo growers - should be grateful.
The third-act revelation marathon may challenge attention spans, but that's the only complaint. The visuals are breathtaking, the fights are heart-stopping, this is how action movies should be made.