Both companion piece and corrective, Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers pares back some of the narrative and scenic obfuscation of the director's previous martial-arts epic Hero and instead cranks up the emotions. On some level, the plot is pure soap: two cops in ninth-century China (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) fall for the same blind assassin (Zhang Ziyi, an actress of such delicate charms they should have put her in a museum, not the movies) while investigating the underground resistance movement to which she apparently belongs. Yet it serves Zhang's purpose here in ways the earlier film's brutalities couldn't. Hero was a repressive film, in everything from its underlying imperialist message to the lavish dressing it was cloaked in; its characters appeared so cosseted by their costumes, or awestruck in front of the scenery, that they were never quite allowed to move in ways you'd like folks in a martial-arts movie to move. The great, liberating joy of House of Flying Daggers, then, is the way those costumes and decorations are forever being ripped up or off; beneath them, we find beating hearts rather than the strings of puppets.
The casting helps. Instead of grumpy old Jet Li - who's always looked as though he'd find oppressive Government business as something akin to light relief - we have Kaneshiro, an actor in possession of the jawline and bluff amiability of a rugby-club captain. (His character's referred to as "The Wind", which - though it has nothing to do with the lighting of farts - goes some way to establishing a generally breezy personality.) Lau, too, finds a good match for an occasionally hard-to-read screen persona in a role with useful echoes of his Infernal Affairs work. The action is, if anything, even more choreographed and balletic than Hero's, yet it's ritualistic in the sense of a blood-letting, rather than the earlier film's trooping of some state-sanctioned colour: you're certain somebody's going to get hurt, emotionally if not physically. Cut with surer hands, and shot with lethal precision, the fight scenes here clearly benefit from the experience Zhang gained in the making of the earlier film. A lush bamboo forest is whittled into whooshing projectiles; women are led to take up arms against patriarchal oppression; a dance becomes a show of force.
Encoded in this narrative is an understanding of what an ambiguous quality beauty can be: how, even as it beguiles, it can fool the eye into overlooking the blade to the throat and the jackboot to the groin. The immensely beautiful Hero was the work of a filmmaker who'd grown complacent to such sights, so it's a pleasing progression that the female lead here should be blind, thus unaware of the landscapes she's situated within, and more likely than anyone else around to stumble face-first into a pool of muddy water. House has to feel its way around its universe, and in doing so one senses Zhang coming to see the world, and its inhabitants, with an appreciably greater clarity. Perhaps most telling of the difference between these two films is the moment, just after she's stumbled, when the assassin is handed a change of clothes by one of the policemen. Her response, upon changing, is not "wow, I must look terrific in this outfit put together by an internationally renowned costume designer", as it might well have been on the set of Hero. This time, it's altogether more humbled, more relatable, and more affecting: "Do I look awful?" Been there, girl.
House of Flying Daggers screens on C4 tonight at midnight.