While there are several vicious and visceral treats to be gained from a viewing of House of Flying Daggers, there are three primary set pieces that would each warrant the price of admission. This is not to discount the other many virtues of the film, though I would be remiss if I didn't add also that the pleasure of the film is not so much in the fantastic whole as in the sum of its splendid parts. These moments, each more astounding than the last, provide an elegant three-sided symmetry to a film that suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a story about a love triangle set against the conflicts of the 9th-century Chinese Tang Dynasty.
Magnificent Moment One: "The Echo Game." Mei (Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a talented, blind dancer in the Peony Pavilion, a brothel. When a drunken customer, Jin (puckish Takeshi Kaneshiro), causes a scene, a military captain orders them both arrested. The madam insists that the brothel can't do without her particular talents, but the captain scoffs. What could a blind dancer do that's so essential? Mei proves her worth by submitting to a test of her grace and reflexes in which she is encircled by a battalion of standing drums. The captain flicks a bean onto a drum (or three or hundreds) and Mei dances a ferocious ballet with long, weighted sleeves, hammering out the beat of the beans, not unlike playing the electronic game Simon blindfolded and at super-speed. While danger hangs in the form of a prison sentence, the captain is pleased by the performance and Mei is sated by the challenge. The effect: spellbinding.
But Mei is imprisoned when a set of distinctive daggers is found among her possessions. They are the mark of a secret society of warriors known as (you guessed it) the House of Flying Daggers. Blind or no, she's a threat. But that belligerent brothel guest, Jin, turns out to be a Daggers sympathizer. (Or is he? Actually, he is a government spy charged with tricking her into leading him to the Daggers' lair.) He breaks Mei free and takes her across the Chinese countryside in the hopes of finding her brethren. Along the way, as the two seem to be falling more into love, Mei learns that Jin's name means "wind," and like the wind, there is no holding the attentions of Jin for very long. They part when Jin can't commit beyond the impending end of their journey. But a small army of government soldiers attacks the lone Mei, and Jin's commitment to his superiors and his very real love for Mei send him back to protect her from an AWESOME bamboo fight: Magnificent Moment Two. Bamboo is used as swords, staffs, shields, daggers, stilts, ladders as just about everything bamboo can be used for short of panda food. As these shoots and ladders are wielded and hurled, a high-speed chase ensues with Jin and Mei on the ground and the assassins racing across the tops of the trees. It's just incredible. Beautiful and horrifying.
Magnificent Moment Three: a gorgeous battle between the eventual love triangle's tortured participants in a thick and relentless blanketing of snow another example of arrestingly beautiful violence as articulated by striking production design. While these may not be people we would want to buy a beer, we come to respect their adherence to a code of honor and discipline that is both foreign and mostly absent from our ways of the West. By the time we discover who Mei's mysterious Other Man is, the stakes are enormous, and he, Jin, and Mei have everything to lose with only questionable potential gains. The snow, the music, and the blood that spills are truly heart-stopping, and the level of sacrifice to which all are prepared to commit is staggering.
There are, incidentally, many other smaller magnificent moments.
That both Jin and Mei have secrets is all one needs to know to enjoy the construction of the narrative of Flying Daggers. There is some intrigue in the politics of the Flying Daggers, but it is almost a distraction from Jin and Mei's angry, awkward, charming courtship amid spectacular fight sequences the heart and essence of the film. Another 30 or so minutes to its brisk two hours could have fleshed out some of the neglected back story (which possesses enough tantalizing mystery for an entire additional film), but no matter. House of Flying Daggers is so rich with color, conflict, and poetry that any deficiency is easily overlooked.