In ancient China, one of the Emperor's generals (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to a brothel to track down a blind showgirl (Zhang Ziyi) who is believed to be part of an underground group of rebel assassins called the House of Flying Daggers. So he pretends to be a confederate of hers, "rescuing" her from prison and letting her lead him straight to the House itself.
For a while, that seems to be all the story there is to this film, a mere clothesline to hang numerous swordfighting and martial arts scenes on. Midway through, however, the first of many surprise twists occurs, and the plot, as they say, thickens. But there's still plenty of room for more fight scenes – including an amazing sequence in a bamboo forest that's worth the price of admission alone.
With this film, Zhang Yimou seems less interested in playing to a Western audience than he did when making Hero, his epic foray into wuxia (martial arts, or more appropriately "flying swordsman") cinema. (Probably because by the time Flying Daggers was made, Hero was a big hit in China, yet was still gathering dust on Western distributors' shelves.) Thus, it's not as slick or as large-scale a production, and the music and cinematography don't quite measure up to its predecessor. Zhang compensates by shooting Flying Daggers in gorgeous locations aglow with late autumn color (almost the entire film takes place outdoors, in various forests) and, unfortunately, getting a bit too gaga with the computer effects and slow-motion.
Flying Daggers lacks Hero's class, so instead it attempts to be your basic Hong Kong popcorn flick – Kaneshiro and costar Andy Lau are HK mainstays – and the twisty-turny plot, trite dialogue, and high melodrama would feel right at home amidst other HK action pictures. Once in a while you're reminded that this is a Zhang Yimou film, however, and he infuses the mostly by-the-numbers proceedings with his trademark sensuality.
Then there's that fantastic central performance by Zhang Ziyi, whose luminous presence makes up for the often stiff, hammy Kaneshiro and Lau. Given a better script, the two Zhangs could have made something transcendent. But a shallow storyline – credited to Zhang Yimou and his Hero cowriters – and two uninspired if game leading men ultimately keep House of Flying Daggers earthbound.