While wuxia movies—fantasy-tinged stories of heroic martial artists in ancient China—have been around for decades, it wasn’t until 2000 or so that they were properly introduced to Western audience. And for a time, any example of the form would amaze and delight, with their flying swordsmen, lush landscapes and larger-than-life theatrics. But with any genre, the trappings are just that; an artifice with which to deliver something a bit more meaningful. To that end, one surely worth considering is House of Flying Daggers. It’s not every day you come across a story of star-crossed lovers in a movie with martial arts weaponry in its title, but that’s wuxia for you.
The story takes place in the waning days of the Tang Dynasty, in the 9th century. As the corrupt government falters, powerful rebel groups spring up across the country. In the northeastern city of Fengtian, two police officers, Leo and Jin, are given the seemingly impossible task of finding and killing the leader of a particularly troublesome rebel outfit called the House of Flying Daggers. They have only 10 days to do it, so they launch an undercover operation where Jin poses as a rebel and breaks a blind dancer named Mei from jail. Mei is suspected of being the daughter of the Flying Daggers’ former leader, so the idea is that Jin wins her trust, she takes them to Flying Daggers HQ, and Leo trails them with a bunch of his fellow officers to destroy the rebels once and for all. It’s a great plan that swiftly goes sideways as Jin and Mei fall in love, other government agents decide to destroy the Flying Daggers as well, and Jin and Leo both reveal conflicting ulterior motives. Everybody’s got something to hide, nobody is fully honest with each other, and in this world, love might be worth dying for, but secrets are always worth killing for.
Like a number of other wuxia movies released in the early 2000s, House of Flying Daggers is gorgeous to behold, replete with lavish visuals and a saturated palette that practically color-codes entire acts of the story. While it is best viewed with subtitles rather than dubbed (what foreign film isn’t?), this is the kind of movie told with such skill that you could probably turn the subtitles off and still get the gist of things. It isn’t long before we begin to see the romantic tension that provides the story’s true north, but along the way we are never starved for action in one intricately staged battle after another. Stopping just short of a fight scene too many, House of Flying Daggers manages to be a romance movie that is also a heck of a martial arts film, rather than a martial arts film that pauses between bloodlettings to ponder a moment of romance. It’s a welcome inversion of narrative priorities.
The themes of betrayal and deception run close to the surface throughout, with the entire plot put into motion by a fairly simple deception hatched by Leo and Jin that paves the way for greater and graver deceptions, as well as the crushing inevitability that the deeper the secret, the greater the drama once it surfaces. And secrets always find their way to the surface. It’s just a matter of time and the degree to which we allow ourselves to buy into a lie.
By the end of the movie, our heroes and villains have become so twisted and turned that it’s difficult to say who is really fighting for what, and for whom we ought to be rooting. True love, perhaps, but even then, how true can love be when it is almost never all that true to begin with? After all, this movie asks, how well do we really know the ones we love? How much of our understanding of them is really our projected desire? And how much of ourselves to we hide from our loved ones, either because we will not surrender our whole heart to another, or because we fear that if our fullest selves were discovered, we might no longer be attractive?
It all points to the truism that love isn’t what turns a romance into a relationship; it’s all of the work of life that surrounds it. The million little details that never just happen on their own. The million unflattering truths that present themselves when our guard is down. The million opportunities for us to put ourselves first, and then don’t. More than anything, though, these things all take time to establish themselves, and at the core of this movie is the tragic understanding of all of these characters that none of them have the time they need to fulfill their heart’s desire. Those who have had enough time have spent it elsewhere. Those who see a future worth pursuing have found it too late in the game for it to be more than a fleeting joy, already half-expired. In love, like so many other things, timing is everything.
The moment of truth comes early in the film, when Leo and Jin are contriving a reason to get blind Mei thrown in jail. To test her hearing, Leo has Mei stand in a circle of drums and he flicks beans at them to see if she can hit the same drums with only her ears to guide her. What results is a scene of remarkable visual excitement, but beneath it all there is a game being played between two people who know there are multiple layers of the truth in action, and they’re enjoying being the only ones in on an elaborate joke played on the rest of the world. Being in love feels like that. But as the scene ends in chaos and confusion—a harbinger of the crumbling deceptions to fill the story as it progresses—we’re reminded that unless we’re careful, love can feel like that, too.