When a movie's called House of Flying Daggers, you expect some knives to be thrown around, but not with the lethal elegance that China's Zhang Yimou brings to the task. Some of us are still reeling from Zhang's previous film, Hero, which, for reasons never adequately explained, sat on Miramax's shelf for two years before being released in the U.S. only a few months ago. House of Flying Daggers may not surpass Hero, one of the most gorgeous films ever made, but it's a masterful piece of filmmaking - passionate, exciting and surprisingly moving, given that it spends so much of its time hurling sharp objects at soft bodies. And did I mention that it's gorgeous? Zhang, whose color-coded esthetic reaches all the way back to his first film, 1987's Red Sorghum, has become an Old Master, delicately brushing the screen, as a painter would a canvas.
And in Zhang Ziyi, he's found one hell of a camera subject. Ensconced in silk, her face a lily-white mask topped with a golden headdress strung with tinkling, twinkling ornaments, Zhang makes an entrance that Marlene Dietrich would have killed for. And she proceeds to act up a storm - a blizzard, to be exact. She's Mei, a blind courtesan whose job at a brothel is a cover for her membership in the House of Flying Daggers, a rebel outfit that hopes to bring to an end what remains of the Tang Dynasty. But the government has a couple of tricks up its sleeve - namely, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), a pair of deputies who hope to infiltrate the House of Flying Daggers using Mei as their way in. The handsome Jin, posing as a brothel customer, will get Mei to fall in love with him. Leo will keep a close eye on the two of them, moving in to make the arrest when the moment's right.
It doesn't quite work out that way, if only because Mei, too, has a couple of tricks up her sleeve - namely, her sleeves. In the movie's first jaw-dropping set piece, a little song-and-dance number called the Echo Game, Mei releases the inner sleeves of her silk robe and uses them as if they were elastic arms, carving up space and pounding on drums arranged in a circle around her. Yeah, it sounds kind of weird, but Zhang and his team - Tony Ching Siu-Tung, who staged most of the action sequences, and Zhao Xiaoding, who shot the movie - make a believer out of you. Arrested by Leo, Mei escapes with the assistance of Jin, who tries to work his charms on her. And House of Flying Daggers, it becomes clear, is a classic love triangle, Jin and Leo both staking their claims on Mei, claims that lead to a powerful climax in a snow-smothered field.
Some may object to the twists and turns of the plot, but the movie is at heart a genre story, albeit one that's draped in cinematic splendor. The fight scenes - there's a great one in a bamboo grove - are basically ballets, poetry in motion, and one of the things that's so thrilling about House of Flying Daggers is that you feel like everything's been purified to its essence, boiled down to the basics of sight and sound. Major stars in their own countries, the three leads have charisma to burn, and the love scenes, though chaste by Western standards, suggest that, four decades after the Cultural Revolution, China is undergoing a sexual revolution. There are perhaps too many attempted rapes for this critic's taste, but always with a price to be paid, most notably when a dagger comes whistling through the bamboo stalks and teaches a lesson about penetration.