Visual magnificence is so seductive that moviegoers may forget to ask themselves if the experience has any deeper meaning. Director Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers is certainly a martial arts epic of surpassing beauty. He gussies up a historical Chinese melodrama with plenty of eye candy and computer-enhanced brawls. In numerous fight scenes, gorgeously costumed characters defy gravity while framed by an array of dazzling landscapes and decors to die for.
But the film, opening this weekend at the Roxy in Burlington, allows all this glorious style to overwhelm substance. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the 2000 masterpiece by Ang Lee, tempers its choreographed combat with an exquisitely layered romantic tragedy. The current Zhang Yimou work, which he co-wrote with Li Feng and Wang Bin, feels skin-deep by comparison.
The skin in question is porcelain: Zhang Ziyi, the lovely actress who plays a conflicted villain in Crouching, appears in Flying Daggers as a spunky heroine named Mei. She's a clever double agent trying to outwit various other spies and adversaries during the seemingly sinister 9th century. Think TV's "Alias" transposed to the Tang Dynasty.
Mei initially pretends to be a blind courtesan at the Peony Pavilion, a rather breathtaking brothel considered decadent by ancient standards. Guided only by the sound of pebbles that a male customer tosses at random, she performs the "echo game," using her improbably long sleeves to tap out the same beat on an ornate ring of drums. Leaping and twirling, Mei mesmerizes the man -- and the audience -- in this extended sequence.
The local authorities arrest her, however, correctly suspecting that she's a member of an infamous insurgency known as House of Flying Daggers. In addition to warring against the corrupt government, these Robin Hoods supposedly steal from the rich and give to the poor. Unfortunately, the conceit gets only lip service. We never actually witness any theft or largesse.
Jin, a handsome young police captain portrayed by Takeshi Kaneshiro, pretends to be a rebel sympathizer whose nom de guerre is Wind. He stages a jailbreak to liberate Mei, hoping that she will lead him to her clandestine gang's hideout in a vast forest. They travel on horseback, trailed by his boss Leo (Andy Lau) and the emperor's army. It's a paranoid 859 AD journey in a region that holds danger at every turn.
Along the way, Mei and Jin/Wind battle one set of bad guys after another. They are equally skilled at the balletic but superhuman jousting that the Digital Age has wrought on screen. The most heart-stopping encounter takes place in a misty bamboo grove, with opponents swooping through the tree branches a la Crouching Tiger.
Despite mutual distrust, Mei and commitment-shy playboy Jin fall for each other. "I'm a free spirit," he tells her.
"I want the wind to stop and think," she responds, delivering some of the script's most intricate dialogue.
Zhang Yimou's cinematic women have often been feisty, bumping up against the cultural constraints of a traditional society. His former muse, Gong Li, once inhabited those roles. For almost a decade beginning in the late 1980s, he cast her in a succession of artistic triumphs such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju.
These pictures were stunningly subtle in their subversion of official Chinese policy. But as the world began to praise the filmmaker, he paid a price back home. The censors clamped down. In the mid-1990s, his narratives became more ordinary and less controversial. Hero, a successful 2002 release that first hit the United States last summer, signaled a new chapter in his career: Zhang Yimou, master of high-tech action flicks.
Luckily, he remains a wizard of imagery with a penchant for imaginative color schemes. Critic associations in Boston and Los Angeles have already honored the movie; it's been nominated for a best-foreign-film trophy at the Golden Globe ceremonies, to be televised on NBC this Sunday, January 16. The Mandarin-language, English-subtitled Daggers is also likely to get Oscar nods for costumes, production design and cinematography, at the very least.
Nonetheless, the film's sumptuous look cannot fully obscure a ritualistic tale of jealousy, betrayal and sacrifice that turns maudlin. And even extraordinary kinetic movements, performed by nimble actors in league with cybernation, are no substitute for idiosyncratic, restrained storytelling and that thing we call soul.