Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers takes place toward the end of the Tang Dynasty in 859 AD when the government is hunting down a band of outlaws who, like Robin Hood, steal from the rich to give to the poor. (The outlaws call themselves the House of Flying Daggers in honor of their weapons, which have directional skills I associate with a much more advanced state of technology.) Movie critics get the historical specifics from press releases handed out at screenings. They probably won't mean much to American audiences, and in any case the movie itself doesn't make much of them. In fact, House of Flying Daggers has so few characters it lacks the epic breadth of the average Robin Hood movie (in which brothers battling for the throne of England are major characters).
House of Flying Daggers has the highly-colored splash and violence of a spectacle, but a very compact narrative. Jin (Takeshi Kineshiro), a government agent, and Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a woman from the House of Flying Daggers, disguise themselves in order to seduce each other in mutually opposed attempts at infiltration, entrapment, ambush. Both plans work but Jin and Mei also fall in love with each other, which screws everything up. We never find out what the political outcome is; the movie concentrates increasingly on the complications between Jin and Mei, as well as Mei's other paramour, also a double agent.
The story is in the wuxia tradition, a longstanding form of Chinese narrative which has had a recent efflorescence and has become known to American audiences from Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Click here for a more concise Wikipedia entry and here for a more in-depth one.) Whether or not you can place them historically, the cultural details, including weaponry, styles of fighting, music, and costume are, of course, Chinese, but the structure of the wuxia genre is analogous to European medieval romance, in which heroes engage in martial adventures and resist temptations while pursuing a quest that embodies a larger (national or spiritual) ideal. The narrative of House of Flying Daggers can thus be described as a double chivalric romance, one with a nifty, ironic twist: for Jin and Mei, unbeatable as fighting knights but defenseless as undercover lovers, quest and temptation are the same thing.