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Shi mian mai fu (2004)

House of Flying Daggers, Ambush From Ten Sides

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 119 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 15

Feng Tian County, 859AD, when the once glorious Tang Dynasty has become corrupt, and an underground army of rebels known as ‘House of Flying Daggers’ is gaining in popular support, despite the recent assassination of its leader. Suspecting that Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind showgirl new to the area, is in fact the dead leader’s daughter and an accomplished assassin in her own right, local captains Leo (Andy Lau Tak Wah) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) hit upon a devious way to flush out the rebels. Leo arrests and imprisons Mei, only for her to be daringly rescued by the mysterious Wind – who is in fact just Jin in disguise. Leo engineers a series of fake perils for Jin to help Mei evade, in the hope that Mei will fall in love with ‘Wind’ and lead him to the rebel hideout. The imperial troops, however, are moving in, no-one is playing by the rules, everyone is hiding something, and within a few short days both the dangers faced by the fugitive couple, and the love that they now share, are alone proving to be real amidst the fog of stratagems, deceptions and betrayals.

‘House of Flying Daggers’ is Zhang Yimou’s second foray, following the international success of his epic Hero (2003), into ‘wuxia’, the Chinese genre of swordplay and chivalry, patriotism and politics. Or so at least it seems to be, with its opening subtitles formally setting the action in Chinese history, with its sumptuous period costumes, and its breathtaking fight sequences that defy all the normal laws of gravity. It even features an extraordinary battle in a bamboo forest, a staple scene of wuxia films since as far back as King Hu’s ‘A Touch of Zen’ (1969) – a lesser variant of which recently appeared in Ang Lee’s crossover wuxia ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (also featuring Zhang Ziyi). Yet by the time ‘House of Flying Daggers’ is over, the grand clash between decadent Imperialists and rebel activists towards which the narrative has been heading is unceremoniously forgotten, history and politics are swept aside, and what remains is a profoundly personal stand-off between three individuals in an isolated, snowy field. For in ‘House of Flying Daggers’, it is not only the characters who are double-agents – the film itself is in fact a tragic love story that merely masquerades as martial epic.

Zhang Yimou is well-known as a subtle critic of his government’s policy, and if ‘Hero’ was an uncharacteristic apology for state oppression and brutality in the name of Chinese national unity, then ‘House of Flying Daggers’ sees Yimou returning to a more dissident position. When Jin first sees Mei performing at the Peony Pavilion, she is singing a song about a woman so beautiful that she reduces everything before her to ruin. “There’s no city or state”, goes the lyric, “that has been more cherished than a beauty like this” – and it is a lyric which resonates throughout the film, as characters abandon their political allegiances, renounce their beliefs and betray their every principle for a love that proves to be the most subversive force of all – powerful enough to turn a patriot into a deserter, an ideologue into an apostate, and a state epic into a private tragedy.

Staggeringly beautiful and deeply moving, ‘House of Flying Daggers’ first dazzles its viewers before piercing them to the heart.

It's Got: Beautiful sets (that shift from colourful autumn to stark winter), amazing fights (including a bamboo battle that outdoes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), deception, treachery (both political and emotional), and a tragic love triangle.

It Needs: A handkerchief for the final scenes.


A staggeringly beautiful martial romance which dazzles viewers with epic display before piercing them right to the heart.