House of Flying Daggers

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Lovers
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Currently showing
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There’s a scene right at the beginning of Zhang Yimou’s latest, “House of Flying Daggers,” where Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, playing Tang Dynasty lawmen, are in a brothel on a mission. They’re trying to discover whether the new girl there, a blind dancer known as Shaomei (Zhang Ziyi), is connected to a mysterious group of antigovernment rebels known as the House Of Flying Daggers.

The girl is ordered to dance for Liu (Andy Lau). But not just any dance. A circle of rose-patterned drums on high pedestals are arrayed around the room while Liu sits at a table with a bowl of dried beans in front of him. In the middle of the room stands Shaomei, silent, attuned to the slightest sound.

Liu flicks a bean at a drum. It strikes with a thunderous boom, and skitters away clattering on the floor. Shaomei explodes in a flurry of twirls and pirouettes, a golden whirlwind, the long sleeves of her robes flying like wings till she magically strikes the exact same drum. Liu grins; he tries again with two beans, ricocheting beans . . . every time Shaomei finds his target. (And Zhang Ziyi, a dancer as well as an actress, does quite a performance here.) Finally, disdainfully, he tosses the whole bowl.

Zhang Yimou pauses here, indulging in the film’s first bit of ostentatious CG-manipulation. The beans are frozen in mid-air and we watch in slow-motion as they scatter toward the drums, triggering a flurry of sound. Watch out, he seems to be saying, here it comes . . .

Does it ever. With his action-fantasy film of last summer, “Hero,” Zhang proved himself adept at filming memorable duels, lighter-than-air acrobatics that were a rush of color and motion. With this scene, though, he’s showing us how far he’s raised the bar. Where “Hero” was a major achievement, it was also the director’s first foray into Hong Kong-styled action, after a career of more serious films (“Raise the Red Lantern” etc.); “House of Flying Daggers” shows us that the genre remains fresh for him, and that he intends to have some fun with it.

While so many spectacle-action flicks these days are just tiresome slugfests that inevitably bring on bouts of deja vu, Zhang has stocked his film full of fresh, laugh-out-loud stunts. Whether it’s Zhang Ziyi parrying an attack from spear-wielding soldiers by doing a full split between two slender bamboo trees, or Kaneshiro taking out an enemy by angling an arrow off another warrior’s shield, the sheer audacity of the filmmakers will have you giggling with glee. Creativity does count for something even in action films, which is why I want to see this one again next week, while I’m already hard-pressed to remember an iota of “Troy,” let alone “Matrix: Revolutions.”

As far as the story goes, it’s your classic love triangle. After Liu arrests Shaomei, the younger, wilder officer Jin (Kaneshiro) is ordered to feign love for her and help her escape, while Liu stealthily follows, hoping that she will lead them to the rebels’ lair. Somewhere along the way, Jin — a classic womanizer — finds himself falling in love for real, and his loyalties become confused. More surprises await.

The story isn’t that engaging, but when you’ve got Zhang Ziyi, perhaps Asia’s hottest actress at the moment, paired between reliable romantic leads like Kaneshiro and Lau, odds are that ticket sales will be brisk.

The mixing here of mainland Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese-Japanese stars is also a canny move. It’s part of a larger trend toward “pan-Asian” casting that mixes the region’s biggest stars to maximize the market, ideally to the point where it’s possible to make big-budget films that don’t have to play to the American market and its tastes — a step toward countering the hegemony of Hollywood.

Zhang Yimou, unlike many of his peers, has resisted going Hollywood, having grown into bigger productions on his own turf. In an increasingly homogenized world, it’s clear that Zhang wishes to retain his local flavor. If anything, he overdoes it: The set decoration by Huo Tingxiao and costumes by Emi Wada are hyper-Orientalist, pushing the baroque ornamentation and dizzying colors to dizzying extremes. The brothel scene, especially — with butterfly patterns painted on the floor, stained-glass inlays in the walls, massive floral paintings behind the rose-patterned drums, and the ever-whirling gold- and pink-robed figure of Zhang Ziyi — is enough to make the viewer feel like he’s fallen into a kaleidoscope.

A fight in a mist-shrouded bamboo forest, on paper, may seem like the stuff of Asian cliche. But Zhang comes up with some surprising twists, making this easily the most thrilling screen battle of the year. Some will call this Orientalism “catering to Western audiences”; I would ask those people to check out the huge success it’s had in China, no doubt soon to be repeated here in Japan. If anything, as with “Hero,” the violence may not be extreme enough for the teen-boy demographic that action films usually aim for: This never gets as gory as “Musa” (good) or “Zatoichi” (bad). Like with “Hero,” Zhang has succeeded in encasing a frantic swordfest within a gorgeous sheen of art direction, resulting in a look and feel that’s entirely his own. Also like “Hero,” the film’s final reel gets a bit too histrionic, but by that point, you won’t mind.

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