With House of Flying Daggers, the fusion between East and West seems to have reached its apex. From the The Matrix's employment of Yuen Woo-ping through the glossing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for international audience appeal, the seamless marriage between the Hollywood look and the Hong Kong feel has been developing quickly and steadily. For all this time, though, one could always tell when one style was dominant over the other in any given film.
Director Zhang Yimou's latest, however, may have finally pulled off the perfect trick. House of Flying Daggers is a movie set in the Chinese past and given a picturesque production, both artistically formal and instantly accessible. The story tells a simple tale of lovers on the run; its action is fast and exaggerated, but not overblown; and for special effects it utlizes both wire work and computer-generated effects without heavily relying on either. It even has Asian stars up-played for their glamour factor -- we never doubt Ziyi Zhang and Takeshi Kaneshiro have talent, but here they're primarily sexy. And speaking of Ziyi Zhang, just look at her name -- it's been Westernized to place her surname, Zhang, last.
This film in almost every way counts as an international product geared specifically for Westerners to feel at home with, and yet it clearly bears the marks of its famed director. Its leisurely pace, its beautiful star, and its painting-come-to-life looks are distinctly Zhang Yimou. He utilizes themes of passion and dedication while wearing a new action-director's hat. He keeps things under his control, but at the same time the spectacular fight scenes (complete with Western-ish slo-mo/speed-up moments) reveal that Zhang has also come out to play. Hero had action, you say? Not compared to this.
Speaking of Hero, it appears that Zhang has also found a way to complement his previous work. Both represent Zhang's current phase of wuxia-influenced martial arts experimenting, but Hero carries the traits of a strict professor -- cold, stiff, distant, yet thoughtful, philosophical, and disciplined. Alone, it's an admirable work, but it doesn't fully feel like potential fulfilled in this emotion-driven genre. House of Flying Daggers is the answer to that. It's warm, emotional, passionate, and covered in sweat and blood. Hero emphasizes distinct, cool color-coding, while Flying Daggers makes colors vibrant and natural. Where Hero dissertates about calligraphy, Flying Daggers stages a song-and-dance (exquisitely performed by Ziyi Zhang).
If Hero is man, then Flying Daggers is woman. Apart, each lacks the desirable qualities of the other. Hero can be faulted for not stopping to feel, Flying Daggers can be faulted for not stopping to think. Taken together, though, they create quite a cinematic one-two punch.
House of Flying Daggers even inverts the philosophy preached in Hero. The conclusion of Hero made the case for sacrificing individual needs for the destiny of a country. In Flying Daggers, the exact opposite occurs, as individuals forsake their duties to political sides in order to pursue love. Some have said Hero's message is distinctly Eastern, and it's easy to say the new movie's message of "all in the name of love" is distinctly Western.
House of Flying Daggers thus marks many completions. It's the smoothest blending yet of the styles of two coasts, a movie where we can't tell where East begins and West ends. It's a movie that fills in the void left by Hero while creating one for Hero to fill. It's fitting, then, that this film about two people falling in love can represent so many marriages.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG-13" for stylized martial arts violence and some sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.