Anyone who watches Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) is likely to want more. Thus I highly recommend Yimou’s next movie, House of Flying Daggers (2004), which is very much in the same vein: a martial arts film set in the exotic past with complex and interesting characters, impossible but spectacular fights, gorgeous landscapes, and dazzling costumes and sets. House of Flying Daggers was filmed in China and Ukraine. Most of it is set outdoors, in magnificent forests of birch and bamboo, filmed in the lushest colors imaginable.
House of Flying Daggers does, however, differ from Hero in important ways, and even though you must see it, it is frankly not as good a movie.
Hero is set in 227 BCE, just before the rise of the first Chinese Empire. It is springtime for China, a youthful, expansive phase of culture. There is great artistic and cultural refinement, but overall, society is characterized more by potentiality than actuality. Great vital energies are surging forth. Something new and glorious is on the horizon. The emergence of this new order both rests upon and inculcates heroism: single-minded civic virtue and self-sacrifice.
House of Flying Daggers is set more than 1,000 years later, in 859 CE, during the waning years of the great Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), one of China’s political, cultural, and artistic Golden Ages. It is a time of spectacular cultural refinement and beauty. But it is also a time of decadence and decay. People are emotionally self-indulgent, mercurial, and pleasure-oriented. The movie is set in a dazzlingly colorful autumn, which is appropriate, because civilization is in autumn phase, when the leaves display their greatest beauty before falling dead to the ground. It is also a time of political disintegration, in which civic virtue is weak, corruption is rampant, and new communities are arising to claim the allegiance and idealism once commanded by the empire.
The House of Flying Daggers is one such community. It is an initiatic martial-spiritual order of assassins that uses crime and terrorism to protect the people from the rich, corrupt, and powerful. Along with feudal warlords, such societies have challenged centralized imperial rule throughout Chinese history, stretching from the Yellow Turban Rebellion of 184 CE under the Han Dynasty to the Boxer Rebellion of 1898 to 1901 under the Quing Dynasty. (This is one reason for the zealous repression of Falun Gong today.)
The character of the times is epitomized by the character of Jin (played by Okinawan-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro), a young policeman who is a fantastically accomplished swordsman and bowman but who cannot take anything seriously. Jin is tall, handsome, and strong. Life presents him with endless opportunities for martial and amorous adventures, which are just games for him. Like the wind, he glides from one distraction to another, caressing the surfaces of life and never staying in one place.
At the beginning of House of Flying Daggers, we learn that the police have assassinated the old leader of the House, but a mysterious new leader has arisen to take his place. The police are given 10 days to assassinate him or her, an impossible deadline. It is decided that Jin will infiltrate the House. He goes undercover to the Peony Pavilion, a fantastically lavish brothel. He has learned that a girl assassin from the House is working there undercover. He discovers that she is a dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi, who played Moon in Hero). Mei is blind, but her other senses appear fantastically heightened.
Jin contrives a disturbance, which leads to him and Mei being arrested. Once in police custody, she is threatened with torture. Jin then contrives to break them out of jail, hoping that she will lead him, and the police, straight to the new leader of the House of Flying Daggers.
It is all a game to Jin. He feigns flight from the police. He feigns affection for Mei. But events take their own course. His feelings for Mei become real. So does his flight from the authorities, as he is forced to kill soldiers sent by a general who wants the chase to be believable and who cares nothing about the lives of Jin or his own soldiers. Jin, however, does not have the character to deal with serious emotions or serious danger. He flees — but he is also drawn back to Mei. His one constant is vacillation.
Mei is a much more serious and idealistic character. But she has also developed feelings for Jin, and when it becomes clear that her feelings do not matter to the House of Flying Daggers and that she is just as expendable to them as Jin is to the authorities, her loyalties also waver before the choice of duty or personal happiness.
A third character is introduced who is also in love with Mei. He is devastated to learn that Mei no longer loves him but loves Jin instead. So he too is faced with the choice of doing his duty or following his personal feelings.
This being the autumn phase of civilization, all three characters make the wrong decisions, and the movie comes to a grim and emotionally shattering conclusion as an autumn meadow is blanketed by a sudden snowstorm. Winter and death are triumphant. The movie ends, but life, we know, goes on. When the Tang Dynasty fell, a chaotic interregnum followed. But, eventually, spring came again for China, as it will come for our people too.