The film, essentially a three-character affair, is set in 859AD, as China's once dominant Tang Dynasty continues to decline. Rebel armies are forming in protest of government corruption and the strongest (or most colorfully named) is the House of Flying Daggers. Although the group's leader was recently killed, there is a new leader and police captains Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are enlisted to find him. Their first stop is the local Peony Pavilion, where beautiful, blind Mei (Zhang Ziyi), thought to be the daughter of the old leader, dances. After a nice set-piece involving a dancing and drumming challenge called The Echo, Leo and Jin take Mei to jail. Mei is unwilling to provide any information about the Flying Daggers, so the pair hatch another plan: Jin will pose as a mysterious Flying Dagger sympathizer and break Mei out of prison. Hopefully, Jin will earn Mai's trust and take him to Flying Dagger HQ. But of course, secret motivations and long-buried alliances begin emerging and, before long, every character is far from what he or she seemed at the beginning of the film.
From a story standpoint, the twists and turns of the plot will keep most audiences going between fight scenes. However, the love story never really blossoms, which is surprising considering the emotional depths of some of Zhang's earlier work. So with an engaging love story not on offer, we're left with the action sequences, which are all terrific. Every Chinese film of this type needs a bamboo forest battle and here we get a beautiful one, with action simultaneously on the ground and in the air. The titular flying daggers are mean little mothers that defy gravity on the way to their target. Unfortunately, some of their antics are obviously computer generated, which can be a minor distraction.
Swordplay, staged by Tony Ching Siu Tung--who's worked with Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh--is predictably good, while the widescreen work of cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding is sometimes mysterious and always bright and colorful. In front of the camera, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a classically handsome hero who can still shed a believable tear. Zhang Ziyi of "Crouching Tiger" fame is a gorgeous waif who can play brittle and brutal with equal conviction. Starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Screenplay by Li Feng and Zhang Yimou. Produced by Bill Kong and Zhang Yimou. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts violence, and some sexuality. Running time: 120 min