It looks like Zhang Yimou made Daggers with the spare change left over from Hero. And for much of the film this bijoux budget seems to be providing a bit more bang for your buck. There's no shortage of operatic drama, ultra-stylised combat and overblown scenery, but this time the director has planted a compelling, complex romance at the heart of it all, and amongst characters you can even begin to care about.
Indeed, it all seems to be boiling up rather nicely until the last 15 minutes. Then, mysteriously, the context crumbles and falls away leaving the three leads looking rather exposed. Zhang Yimou twists the knob up a notch or two and the whole thing ends up disappointingly overcooked.
Even before the final confrontation the principal protagonists often appear in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the richly-visualised landscapes and the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Ultimately we learn very little about them other than their names, their faces and their role in the action we witness. This sense of superficiality seems to creep into the dialogue - "Are you real?", Mei repeatedly demands of Jin. (Having said that, the central performances are all of the highest quality.)
Once again the problem may be that Western plot-resolution expectations are being confounded. The ending appears "tragic", but exactly whose tragedy is it? If you asked any competent storyteller literate in our own tradition to construct a mythic-historical tale based on the three basic plot ingredients below, few if any would sort things out in the way that this particular narrative does:
- two friends or colleagues in love with the same girl
- evil empire plotting to uncover secret rebel hideout
- everyone is hiding something and noone's identity is secure
I'd wager that most would dedicate more of the 119 minutes to fleshing out the relationship between the two men and less time worrying about the shade of the the autumn leaves.
The oddly vanishing political background and support cast may be attributable to the death of veteran actress Anita Mui from cervical cancer. The director is rumoured to have made some late adjustments to the script.
You have to suspect though that Zhang Yimou would have made a better job of Troy. Zhang Ziyi certainly has the ship-launching sort of face. What would the world of wire-fu wuxia be like without her evanescent, extraterrestrial beauty? If she didn't exist they'd surely have to invent her.
So much elegance and spectacle, yet the budget didn't seem to quite stretch to giving Andy Lau's character Leo a life of his own...or even a horse of his own. You are left with the impression that wherever you are in the vast expanse of China's woodlands and wheatfields, you can walk off in any direction for around 200m and there you will find an agitated-looking Leo skulking around in his purple policeman's outfit!