Contemporary cinema's view of love tends to favor scabrous, gender-warring fare like We Don't Live Here Anymore and Closer, so the heights of romantic ecstasy on display in House of Flying Daggers feels like a miraculous leap of faith. People die for love, kill for love and vow eternal fidelity. They operate by a moral code where honor, self-sacrifice and love replace the common currency of sex, jealousy and money that seem to define modern romance.

Zhang Yimou, part of China's Fifth Generation of filmmakers, has gone from making art house epics like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern to the kind of high-flying, populist action films Hong Kong has been producing for decades. As in his previous philosophical action film, Hero, Yimou brings an operatic sensibility to House of Flying Daggers, weaving themes on the futility of violence into breathtaking scenery and spectacular set pieces.

Yimou's story is set in an era of social decay circa 859 A.D. when the police are paid to squelch dissent in the last days of the Tang dynasty. Undercover cop Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to a lavish brothel to find out if a blind courtesan, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), is a member of the House of Flying Daggers, an underground band of resistance fighters.

The film's opening set piece is an appropriately dazzling preview of the mega-sized theatrics to come. The Peony Pavilion brothel's massive ballroom is done up in intense jewel tones, like a genie bottle filled with China doll women and silk tapestries. Mei first displays her "specialty," a seductive dance meant to get Jin in the mood. But Jin's sinister police chief, Leo (Andy Lau), busts into the brothel and gives Mei the ultimate test, challenging her in an elaborate "echo game" of absurd, fantastic proportions.

In the twisting and turning course of Yimou's adventure, Mei is suspected of being the only daughter of a slain revolutionary and is eventually arrested. But she's soon sprung from jail by handsome Jin, whose loyalties are perpetually thrown into question. He promises to whisk her away to the House of Flying Daggers headquarters.

Few filmmakers deal with matters of honor writ so histrionically large, or with visuals this intense. Yimou's swooning, fairy tale beauty recalls the meticulously designed and photographed spectacles of Bernardo Bertolucci or John Boorman.

Yimou's film adds a profound malaise to the usual Hong Kong action movie. He counters the weightless feats of balletic sword fights with a woefully earthbound counterweight that drags the characters out of their ecstatic loops of flight. Every moment of airborne magic is answered in the lead weights of obligation and responsibility that shackle their flight.

There is something satisfying in the extremes of action in House of Flying Daggers, where villains purr lines like, "I do enjoy fighting a blind girl," and Mei reads Jin's virtue like Braille, as she runs her fingers over his handsome face.

In addition to its essential love story, House of Flying Daggers is a class tale of characters who are pawns in larger political forces and whose endless battles have a sad futility. The characters fight for their masters, squandering lives that should be spent in love. Like an existential video game, agents of fate circle, always threatening to part Mei and Jin, who cling to their love with ferocious devotion and make even modern viewers believe in fairy tale ideals.

Publication date: 1/20/04

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