Swords buckle and emotions tangle in House Of Flying Daggers, the second wuxia (swordplay and chivalry) outing from Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Following so closely behind Hero that it's in danger of crashing into the back of it, House stars Zhang Ziyi as blind revolutionary Mei, who's tricked by two policemen (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) into leading them to the headquarters of a band of secret assassins. An epic love triangle ensues as duty and passion become locked in mortal combat.
The literal English translation of the Mandarin title is 'Ambushed From Ten Directions' and it's the perfect synopsis of Zhang Yimou's unique combination of vigorous martial arts action. The trio's trek across the ravaged beauty of Tang Dynasty China (actually shot in the Ukraine, bizarrely) sets the scene for some truly incredible action scenes as CGI daggers cut through the air at improbable speeds, cavalry charge through fields of flowers and a bamboo forest erupts into a gloriously intricate vertical battle.
"INFLAMED WITH BREATHLESS SENSUALITY"
While Hero asked its characters to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, House focuses on (an overly) melodramatic love triangle in which the three leads put love before loyalty. Detractors will point out that the plot is a half-baked series of clichés and that the characters are as psychologically deep as a puddle in the Gobi desert. They're absolutely right, but it hardly matters when every frame of this operatic movie is inflamed with such breathless sensuality.
Green bamboo forests, white snowdrifts, golden leaves and silver birches claim a similar colour palette to Hero, which used its deep hues to suggest different emotions such as truth and deception. Here, though, Zhang Yimou uses the landscape as a mirror of his character's predicaments: a dense forest captures the characters' confusion; a snow storm suggests ruthless, icy intentions. Martial arts have rarely been filmed with so much artistry.
House Of Flying Daggers (Shi Mian Mai Fu) is released in UK cinemas on 26th December 2004.