How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Qin province in living color? That's the question that dogs Hero director Zhang Yimou throughout House of Flying Daggers, and he never really arrives at a satisfactory answer.
There's little to envy about having to follow up Hero, perhaps Citizen Kane's closest rival for the title of most visually beautiful film ever made. Daggers, a staunchly antimilitarist story of love and betrayal in the China of 859 A.D., is possessed of many an eye-catching sequence in its own right like one in which a blind geisha (Zhang Ziyi) performs an "echo game" in which she apes the motions of beans flung against drumheads. Yet the coordination of choreography and cinematography in this and other scenes suffers by comparison with Hero's entrancing superreality. In terms of sheer spectacle, the new film seems like a step back; a worthy successor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had the cards of filmic sequentiality been so dealt. But they weren't, damning Daggers to forever be regarded a case of too little, too late.
With the visuals a relative disappointment, there's greater impetus to focus on story. The one Zhang has co-authored with Li Feng and Wang Bin is technically an improvement on Hero's Rashomon-inspired flirtations with fascism. It also shares a troubling number of elements with genre achievements like last year's The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. In the waning days of the Tang dynasty, a pair of Imperial county captains tries to infiltrate an outlaw group known as the Flying Daggers. Responding to a tip that one of the Daggers is working as a dancer at an area brothel, lawman Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) attends in the guise of a drunken customer. Causing a disturbance, he creates the perfect opportunity for his side to take the rebel, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), into custody. But in so doing, he falls in love with her, and his assignment to accompany her to the Daggers' secret headquarters becomes a quest to spirit them both to a sanctuary beyond the grasp of imperial politics.
Mei isn't just the object of Jin's desire, but everybody's and that includes the audience. Coveted by men who want to possess her in toto, she's repeatedly escorted to the brink of deflowerment, only to pull back in anxious uncertainty. That balance of heartbreaking conflictedness and genuine eros informs scenes of passion infinitely more believable than Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend's exaggerated rutting in Head in the Clouds (surely the 2004 touchstone for everything that's bad in "serious" filmmaking). Yet Daggers still lacks the emotional heft of Zhang's The Road Home (1999), due in part to its excessive reliance on cheap and familiar narrative stunts. Go to the bathroom at one ill-chosen juncture, and you'll miss about four "reveals" crammed end-to-end.
But if the plot pitches one curve ball too many, it can also be charged with being not preposterous enough. Characters commit acts of physical bravado and endurance that are clearly beyond the human, yet not properly announced as fantastic by the sub-Hero production design and effects. You need a carefully constructed diegesis to sell an audience on the sight of a major player running around with a knife in his back for minutes on end without expiring. Set such activity too close to the real world, and the only daggers that'll be flying around the theater will be ones of derision.