Zhang's new movie, House of Flying Daggers, comes as a pleasant corrective, as if the 52-year-old director wanted to counter every criticism of his last movie. Didn't like Hero's creepily authoritarian politics, which seemed to implicitly approve of China's string of ruthless central governments, both past and present? Daggers is a determinedly light-on-its-feet martial-arts romance with plenty of pretty costumes and period-specific peony pavilions. Got lost in Hero's narrative morass? Then skip as quickly as possible to the fightin' and the lovin' of Daggers. The new film is all that it was designed to be: superbly crafted eye candy starring Zhang Ziyi and a pair of hot male stars: Hong Kong pop idol Andy Lau and Taiwan-Japanese pinup boy Takeshi Kaneshiro. Zhang Yimou's former fans may decry a lack of depth, but Daggers ultimately hits its mark.
Narrative has never been Zhang's strong suit, and Daggers' plot meanders like the Yellow River. Kaneshiro and Lau play police officers for a corrupt imperial government and are charged with eliminating a mysterious rebel group called the House of Flying Daggers, which derives its name from its members' knuckleball-like throwing knives, which dance and weave toward their targets. The pair concoct an elaborate plan to use a blind bar girl (Zhang Ziyi) as rebel bait, and Zhang, a trained ballerina, shows off her skills in a dance sequence that turns into an elegant, then vicious, duel. It is the visual highlight of a gorgeous film.
With such glorious motion sequences, the plot hardly seems to matter, particularly when you're watching two actors as physically uninhibited as Kaneshiro and Zhang run, fight, run some more, fight, fight again, and finally roll around in the wildflowers making sweet, uninhibited Tang-dynasty love. There is a hint of the divided and redivided loyalties that drove the heroes of Hero, but in Daggers the heart overthrows all. This is the kind of movie where a postcoital Zhang whispers to her lover—who's still technically on the other side of their nearly forgotten war—"If we meet again, one of us will have to die," and you can't tell whether she's being serious or just trying to turn him on.
The fight scenes—which is to say, the movie—are as impressive for their inventiveness as their fluidity. Just when you think nothing new can possibly be done with swords, shields and wirework, action coordinator Tony Ching offers soldiers clinging to thin green trees, hurling hand-carved, hollow bamboo spears that whistle through the air like artillery shells. Sword fighting is old hat for Zhang Ziyi now, but Kaneshiro plays like he was born to the bow; maybe he's been taking archery lessons from Orlando Bloom. Lau, whose Mandarin had to be dubbed for the film, suffers in an underwritten role, although director Zhang does find the coldness buried in the deepening lines of the veteran pop idol's face.
Zhang Ziyi provides the beating heart of Daggers. The impetuous girl of Crouching Tiger has grown up. She can emote, even if the sources of those emotions arise from a script that too often veers into the cartoonish. Zhang outshines the green groves of bamboo, the autumn leaves falling, all the beauty of China. (And parts of Ukraine, where some of the film was shot for want of an actual unspoiled Chinese forest.) As Zhang Ziyi matures, some might say her director is regressing. Perhaps the red lantern won't be raised again, and maybe China's aspiring serious moviemakers will need to find a new hero. To those who complain that the outlaw master has joined the mainstream: just lighten up. Zhang Yimou can, as Daggers proves, and the result is plenty of fun to watch.