In an unexpected but not unwelcome reinvention, Chinese leading light Zhang Yimou has used his most recent films to explore a hitherto unsuspected talent for setting human bodies in violent, poetic confrontation. Zhang has shifted gears before, alternating intimate melodramas, historical epics, and Iran-inspired neo-realism, but nothing suggested he had the talent for the grand martial-arts spectacle of Hero and the new House Of Flying Daggers. Hero let loose an apparently long-gestating love for acrobatic action scenes and tied them to a national origin myth. As narrative, it doesn't always work; its story never quite coheres, in spite of the best efforts of an all-star cast. But the heightened sense of human drama Zhang brought to each action sequence made any complaints seem churlish. When a filmmaker offers up one breathtaking visual after another, problems that would hamstring another film can look minor.
The same rule comes into play with House Of Flying Daggers, a follow-up that takes baby steps toward merging the emotional force of early Zhang classics like Raise The Red Lantern with his current style of choice. Returning from Hero, Zhang Ziyi stars as a blind dancer skilled in all manner of martial arts and connected to the House Of Flying Daggers, an underground resistance group determined to right the wrongs committed by government forces in the waning days of the Tang dynasty. Two military captains plan to use Zhang to infiltrate the group: One (Andy Lau) arrests her and holds her captive long enough for the other (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to rescue her and earn her trust as she leads him to the group's headquarters.
Naturally, the plan goes awry, knocked off course by hidden loyalties, external complications, and unexpected passion, all of which seem to necessitate fight sequences. Though Zhang doesn't strive for the mythic quality he achieved with Hero, many moments rival it for beauty and excitement, particularly an early exercise called the "echo game" and an eerie, tree-bending struggle in a bamboo forest. Choreographed to the last beat, the action scenes have a depth that the film's thinly sketched characters never quite develop, a problem that grows more pronounced as the film goes along, and isn't much improved by a finale that bluntly underscores their allegorical roles. Yet, as before, Zhang finds poetry in flying fists, whirling blades, and flying arrows, and he makes melancholy bloodshed feel almost satisfying as an end in itself. If he rediscovers a passion for human passion, he might yet make a masterpiece of it.