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House of Flying Daggers

The New Zhang Yimou

Someone has taken over Zhang Yimou's body. The man who built his reputation by capturing the infinite sadness that actress Gong Li exudes in films like Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad has completely reversed course, pouring his time into the martial arts genre, first with Hero, and now with his newest film House of Flying Daggers.

At least that is how it appears from afar. In reality, what has always set Yimou's pictures apart from the pedestrian filmmaker is not the subject matter, but the flair with which he captures every shot. Whether his next endeavor happens to be a zombie slasher or a romantic comedy, Yimou can be counted on to utilize the same ornate sets painted with vivid shades of red, yellow and green.

He wastes little time before reminding us how he achieved international renown as a filmmaker. In a scene that combines elements of dance, martial arts and acrobatics, the omnipresent Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, Rush Hour 2) plays what can best be described as an elaborate game of Simon. A set of drums arranged in a perfect circle replace the red, green, blue and yellow buttons, and a nattily dressed Andy Lao plays the role of the computer by ricocheting what look like dried barley off each of the percussion instruments.

From there, we are taken on a sightseeing tour of the Chinese and Ukrainian landscape, with stops to admire the blooming flowers of the vast meadows and the changing colors of the deciduous forest. And though the sight of Zhang Ziyi galloping through a meadow of flowers is recycled from the tender, albeit sentimental, Road Home, it doesn't make the set any less beautiful. On the other hand, given that Yimou utilized an expanse of land equivalent in size to the North American continent for filming, the reuse is unjustified.

However, for martial arts fans, the more familiar setting is the requisite battle in a dense thicket of bamboo trees. Fortunately, martial arts pictures are not used as teaching materials or bedtime stories, for if they were children everywhere would assume that bamboo has the magical ability to infuse Chinese people with superhuman powers.

As in so many martial arts films, the combatants possess the ability to scale a stalk of bamboo three stories high with the same ease that the average person does a flight of stairs. And nary a Romanian gymnast can mimic Ziyi as she balances on the tree's slender stalk while hordes of belligerent soldiers hurl lethal weapons at her.

Ziyi has honed her reputation as the deadliest woman on screen who can still qualify for the children's price at amusement parks. Here, she is as formidable an opponent as ever, exhibiting the same expertise whether wielding the trunk of a bamboo plant as a makeshift bo or firing gold-handled daggers at onrushing attackers. Only two distinguished members of the government's police, played by fellow Chinese superstars Andy Lao and Takeshi Kaneshiro, equal her pugilistic abilities.

Where the film falters is the unsuccessful development of a realistic romance between Kaneshiro and Ziyi. The two never seem comfortable together, though certainly not because either character is physically unattractive. Oddly, despite an international following, Ziyi has yet to tackle a role heavy in dialogue. In fact, much like her predecessor in Yimou's films, Gong Li, Ziyi prefers to project her internal sadness through stoic expressions and glassy eyes.

Some of the blame for the love story's failure falls on the writer, who never devotes more than a stray moment to develop the relationship before the next wave of bloodthirsty soldiers catches up to the couple. Of course, few will complain that romance was sacrificed for the sake of combat in a martial arts film. Likewise, objections over the dizzying resolution -- where every character's intentions and identity are revealed, changed, and then revealed once again will be scarce because the double-crosses allow for more of what the audience desires: fighting.

Despite some shortcomings though, House of Flying Daggers is exactly what one hopes for when a great filmmaker steps away from what would be considered the director's normal genre to make an action film. And while it seems the leap to the action genre should be an easy transition to make, one need only recall that Yimou's colleague Ang Lee followed up the breathtaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the insipid Hulk to realize otherwise.

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Stars: 3.5 out of 5