Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang
Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Stylized Martial Arts Violence, and Some Sexuality
The success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was unprecedented. I was old enough to remember how massive of a hit it was. Everyone was talking about it. For a film to do that is rare. Rarer still if it's an independent film not bankrolled by a major studio. But a foreign film? Unheard of. It was a heavy hitter at Oscar time including Best Picture (which it should have won) and a massive financial success in the U.S. But when a movie comes out that breaks new ground and becomes a massive hit, inferior knock-offs inevitably follow. Such was the case here; a re-release of "Iron Monkey" (directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who choreographed the action scenes in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" (the latter two being directed by Zhang Yimou. Yimou's films weren't awful by any means, but they weren't very good either.
859 AD. The Emperor of China is weak and corrupt. A group of warriors calling themselves House of Flying Daggers, acts like Robin Hood: stealing from the rich in order to give to the poor and making bitter enemies with the government soldiers. Their leader has just been killed, and officers Jin (Kaneshiro) and Leo (Lau) have ten days to find the replacement and take them down. A lead takes them to a brothel, where the newest girl, a blind dancer named Mei (Zhang), may be a member of the rebel group. Sure enough, the tip is solid and Jin catches her. But he wants the new leader, and lies about being a traitor so she'll lead him to the hideout. Trouble occurs when they fall for each other.
This is pure wuxia (martial arts drama set in ancient China). The problem is that even for a genre were grand gestures are required, it's overdone. Things get so melodramatic and so ridiculous that all credibility is shattered. After all the betrayals, double-crosses and people returning from the dead, I could barely stifle a giggle. Part of the reason is the screenplay, which is at times embarrassingly bad. Whether it was an example of translation gone wrong or it was crap to begin with (my guess is the latter), the result is plenty of howlers.
The performances aren't much better. Ziyi Zhang, normally a delight to watch, is a little flat as Mei. She does what she can, but the dialogue defeats her. I will say this: she has some very expressive eyes. The other two, Chinese action stars Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, are worse. In addition to being interchangeable, they collapse under all the cheese.
But the film's visuals are obviously the film's selling point. And while some of them look gorgeous, it's nothing new. There isn't much here that we haven't seen before in other, better movies. The shots are nicely composed for the most part, but there are times when the lighting makes it look stale,.
Oddly enough, I thought of Michael Bay when watching this movie. Both he and director Zhang Yimou are clearly more interested in visuals than storytelling, which is excused somewhat by the fact that they are both skilled with them. But while Bay is obsessed with coloring his films in orange and blue (two opposite sides of the color wheel to make it more dynamic), frantically cutting and shaking the camera, Yimou likes color and detail and expressive action scenes. Both have their pluses and minuses, but at least in this case, Yimou falls into the same trap as Bay: using pretty images to camouflage a lack of plot. Sorry, it doesn't work.