After surprising friend and foe with Hero, Yimou Zhang set out to prove — to himself and to the world — that his trend-setting martial arts epic wasn't just a random stroke of genius. And so House of Flying Daggers [Shi Mian Mai Fu] was born. A film that resembles Hero a great deal, but also brings some new elements to the table. It's been years since I last watched it though, so it was in dire need of revisiting. Long story short, Zhang's martial arts follow-up hasn't lost much of its original charm.
Even though House of Flying Daggers is in no way a sequel to Hero, it can easily be regarded as one. After years of directing rural/historical dramas, Zhang suddenly switched to helm a martial arts film and found that he had the talent. Not only that, he brought his lush and rich style with him and immediately started a new wave of martial arts cinema. There may be no narrative connection between both films, but there's no denying that many people were expecting to see Hero 2 when House of Flying Daggers hit cinema screens.
Zhang made sure not to disappoint his newfound fanbase, but he also wasn't planning on making the same film twice. While House of Flying Daggers contains more than enough action to keep the average martial arts fan glued to his seat, the actual core of the film revolves around a love triangle. While this is far from the first martial arts film founded on romantic woes, Zhang does spend a surprising amount of time on the romance and drama, shifting the film from martial arts to a more evenly balanced mix between action and romance.
The story revolves around Xiao Mei, a rebel from the House of Flying Daggers clan, who has infiltrated a local entertainment group to get closer to some corrupt government officials. Two local generals find out about the girl's whereabouts and decide to capture her. When it becomes clear that she won't give up any information under pressure, the two come up with a sneaky plan. Rather than torture her, they decide to set her free in the hope that she'll lead them to the leader of her gang.
Hero was a true visual masterpiece, House of Flying Daggers gets mighty close, but doesn't quite reach that same level of visual excellence. There are definitely scenes where Zhang rivals the best moments of Hero, like the dance with the drums or the big mid-way fight sequence in the bamboo forest. These are easily some of the most striking scenes in any martial arts film ever, but the quality just isn't that consistent. Because of the slower pacing, scenes last longer and there isn't as much visual variation, on top of that some of the effects (both CG and practical - like the snow at the end) don't quite cut it anymore. These are just minor quibbles in an otherwise amazing-looking film, but they do nag, especially when the rest is of such high level.
The soundtrack is a bit more straightforward. Zhang has never been one to stray away too far from the expected and House of Flying Daggers isn't an exception. There are a couple of scenes where the soundtrack is put to very good use though. The drum scene in particular is a superb mix of music and editing where the soundtrack plays an essential part. Per usual, the soundtrack is on point and it does give off a nice vibe, so no real complaints there, it's just that it never really jumps out and grabs your attention.
Actingwise House of Flying Daggers is a step up from Hero. The film does lack a true martial arts legend like Jet Li, then again this film is only half action. Ziyi Zhang, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro form the central trio of the film and they all do a terrific job. It's especially nice having these seasoned actors around when the romance and drama kicks in. As for the martial arts, the choreography is so fantastical that no actual martial arts skills were needed to make the action scenes come to life, so not much is lost there either.
Even though there's plenty of visual marvel and more than enough in the way of action, the film itself is really only four scenes long. That's about half an hour per part, which does slow things down considerably. If you're hoping to see something fast-paced and action-packed, House of Flying Daggers probably isn't a smart choice. Then again, it's nice to see the occasional martial arts film that isn't solely focused on ass-kicking and crazy fight choreographies.
Save some out of place effects, House of Flying Daggers hasn't lost much of its original appeal. It's still a dazzlingly beautiful film, it features a selection of amazing action scenes and the cast is really killing it. The comparisons to Hero are inevitable and when doing so, the film comes up a little short and ends up being just a little less memorable. But judged on its own merits it's still a very respectable masterpiece that doesn't bore or underwhelm. If you like martial arts cinema or you like visual tour de forces, this one comes warmly recommended.