House of Flying Daggers Zhang Yimou

For a Chinese director best-known for his intense, emotional dramas (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou), the martial arts themed period piece Hero, released in North America last year, was a surprise. His follow-up, House of Flying Daggers, bears many similar characteristics but can only be described as a disappointment. Why Hero was a brilliant move for the director was the application of his period sensibilities, his obsessive sense of colour and his artful eye to a genre that seems more flash than substance — it was Crouching Tiger as historical drama rather than flight of fancy. House of Flying Daggers on the other hand (similarly period based, similarly hue-oriented) is a surprisingly thin love story that contains little of the historical or emotional resonance that made Hero a masterpiece. The love story triangle plays out against a backdrop of political intrigue between the rebellious House of Flying Daggers and the entrenched bureaucracy; a representative of each cause falls for a beautiful blind dancer (Ziyi Zhang). Trained dancer Zhang performs a classically-inspired "echo game" involving very long sleeves, and it's one of the most compelling "set pieces" in the film (the other being a bamboo forest battle). Beautiful to look at, no doubt, but unlike each fight in Hero, Flying Daggers' conflicts fail to drive the narrative forward in a compelling way. It may not seem fair to tag Zhang Yimou with a mark of failure simply because the tradition he's working in has been plundered (and cheapened) by dozens of Hollywood knock-offs, but the fact remains that Flying Daggers just doesn't seem fresh. The DVD extras will do little convincing: a 45-minute "making of" featurette seems interminable, one on visual effects offers only before-and-after comparisons, and a commentary by Ziyi and Yimou isn't compelling enough to read for two hours. Zhang Yimou is a talented filmmaker with an incredible eye; he should go back to telling dramatic, personal stories and put the wide brush of wirework away. Plus: music video, storyboard comparisons, more. (Columbia/Sony)