(Warning: contains minor spoilers)
Every once in a while I see a movie that seems to have no precedent in one or more areas and I recently added House of Flying Daggers to that list. To be honest, cinematography was never a category of film making that made as much a difference to me as story, character development, and originality (in that order, for me). That all changed when I saw Hero. Often, I would remember only select scenes that stood out from movies that were particularly beautiful. Hero was the first where I remembered the movie primarily because of the powerful use of color for the specific purpose of enhancing the process of story telling.
Inevitably this movie will be compared to Hero, mostly because it's useful for those promoting it to associate it with predecessors (such as Hero and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) that made the transition to a western audience successfully.
Besides, the role of Ziyi Zhang (remind yourself to exhale and lookaway) it mostly has only the use of superior cinematography in common with Hero. Firstly, it is less martial arts than it is a powerful love story. Even having never seen an Opera before, I was struck by how the only comparison / analogy I could make with this movie is that of an Opera where the artistic medium was color and motion and not music.
I recall seeing a documentary (The Art of Action: Martial Arts in Motion Picture) chronicling the development of the martial arts genre (narrated by Sammuel L. Jackson) where he mentions that the early martial arts movies grew out of the tradition of Peking Opera and I couldn't help but feel that the director must have had it in mind to bring this influence full circle. The motion, costumes, and use of color and theatric melodrama to underscore the themes of romance and bravery were very reminicent of the footage of early Peking Opera shown in that documentary.
My favorite scene is where Ziyi Zhang (who plays the blind daughter of the leader of the House of Flying Daggers) performs an 'Echo Dance' for a soldier. The scene epitomizes what works so well in this movie: the use of slow-action shots (imagine the scenes from the Matrix without freezing the other elements in the shot) of incredibly choreographed interplay between characters. The martial art scenes (though fewer than probably expected) are very well done and never seem forced at any point.
I would definitely suggest this movie to anyone bored with Hollywood's offerings as of late and looking for something refreshing to hold their attention. I would also definitely suggest this to anyone who saw Hero and was as moved by it's originality as I was.