The film (whose Chinese title, Shi mian mai fu, translates as Ambush From Ten Sides) opens in the opulent Peony Pavilion, a house of, er, entertainment, during the last days of the Tang Dynasty. An opening narration reveals that the fading emperor is beset by a rebel group known as the House of Flying Daggers (a name derived from the wickedly curved throwing knives that are their deadly calling card).
In a theme familiar to fans of wuxia pian flicks, the plot revolves around the conflict between personal ambition, emotional attachments, loyalty and duty. Throughout the tense chase that makes up the film's second act - which climaxes by the battle in the bamboo grove - the audience knows that Jin is betraying somebody, but his true motivations are hard to divine. Is Jin tricking Mei into revealing the rebel base, or is he genuinely in love with her and striving to escape Leo's pursuit? Everybody has secrets, and no one is quite what they appear to be. Although Yimou reveals Jin's dual role early in the film, he keeps the audience, even those familiar with the conventions of romantic swordplay films, guessing as to for whom the trap is really set.
The top-notch performances by the heroic trio of lead actors ably convey both the obscure motivations and passionate emotions of the film's characters. (However, a comment posted to the film's Internet Movie Database entry by a Singapore resident takes issue with the Mandarin accents of Lau and Kaneshiro.)
Yimou continues the precedent he established in Hero by using sumptuous colors as a backdrop for his scenes. From the golden hues of an autumnal forest to the emerald tones of the bamboo grove (echoed by the imperial soldiers' green uniforms), vivid colors provide a rich backdrop to the action. And a snowfall that begins during the final duel soon blankets the grassy field and distant trees with a mantle of pristine white (which denotes both innocence and mourning in Asian tradition). Such a striking and artistic use of color is reminiscent of Dario Argento's Suspiria. Finely detailed costumes, weapons and sets round out the film's abundant eye candy.
Martial arts direction was provided by veteran action director Ching Siu-tung, who has lent his notable skills to films from The Moon Warriors and Butterfly and Sword to Hero and Shaolin Soccer, and even City Hunter. Yimou could hardly have made a better choice than Ching Siu-Tung, who proves the wisdom of his selection by providing a flurry of martial arts action enhanced by abundant wirework and CGI assistance. From the amazing Echo Game to the several ambushes by the royal soldiers to the battle in the bamboo grove to a final showdown fueled more by rage and revenge than martial artistry, Ching Siu-tung blends a variety of styles and techniques that keep the many fight scenes fresh and exciting.
The CGI is especially evident in the wicked, sinuously curved throwing knives that give the house of Flying Daggers its monicker, which make frequent appearances in the film. But where some lesser chop socky flicks rely on undercranking to provide the illusion of speeded-up action, House of Flying Daggers often showcases the beauty and grace of its martial arts with slow motion, without dragging down the pace. The wirework and stunt performances are truly astonishing. At one point during the Echo Game, Zhang, a former dancer, poses with one leg pointed gracefully nearly straight up in the air, an impressive move that's downright amazing if not wire assisted.
House of Flying Daggers represents a superb marital arts film that should appeal both to genre fans and newcomers to the style. Its lavish production, compelling performances and superb action prove that the heyday of wuxia pian films is far from over, but rather may be just beginning.