The Chinese seem to be shredding their Taoist compact with nature, in frenzied development harnessed to computers. But, just as American Westerns glazed their reverie onto the open frontier, and Zen spirit staged a nostalgic comeback in Japanese samurai films, many of the best Chinese action movies embrace the beauty of an unspoiled land.
Americans got a vivid rush of it in expatriate Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Its taunting sibling from the more rooted and regarded (among purists) Zhang Yimou – who made “Ju Dou,” “Hero” and “Shanghai Triad” – is “House of Flying Daggers.”
Both earthbound and breathless, “House” is a love triangle filmed as a pastoral but violent epic. Many viewers of Ang Lee’s 2000 film loved the warrior spitfire Zhang Ziyi, and the sequence of sword action in swaying bamboo trees. Now, she outdoes it as a slightly older sword vamp, fighting in a thick, green, tubular forest in which everything except swords (and maybe people) is made of smooth, hard bamboo.
By then, we’ve noted that her refined martial artist, Mei, is not really a bordello dancer despite a “ballet” shaped by huge sleeves, flying stones and drums. And we may have doubts about her blindness – how does even a sylph with her bat-like awareness run through dense woods without going splat? Quickly blind with love for her is the “playboy” police agent Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who calls himself Wind, then breezily tracks Mei’s role in a 9th-century rebel underground of Robin Hoods named Flying Daggers.
More rigidly ready to swoon is Andy Lau Tak Wah as Leo, Jin’s tough boss and likely rival. The story swivels with hairpin turns and discoveries. The script is kitsch, but of the exalted, hearts-of-heaven sort that echoes silent films, and figures of ceramic composure are seen to swoon internally, then channel their desire into wild spurts of energy.
Zhang Yimou has little of Ang Lee’s frisky bubbling of wit, and his scenes can look stage-built even outdoors (“Hero” stiffened from it). But he surpasses “Crouching Tiger” with the scale and exalted intensity of his color design teamed to weather (much of the movie is an autumnal scroll of reds, golds, October browns). When he imposes a sudden snowstorm to better show sprays of blood, his divine ease in doing it overcomes any doubts about realism.
It’s a lovely, streaming, ceremonial movie, a little hard to totally accept if you have questions about the sort of love that requires testing by lethal blades. Or the near-rapes that halt as if thinking: Gee, bad move. Zhang Ziyi and the male leads are splendid objects, which relieves them of any need to truly perform lines like, “If I die under a skirt, I shall flirt as a ghost.”
Not since the silent era has the art of the wide-eyed stare been so exhibited. Theda Bara had the gaze but lacked the moves. In “House” everyone moves well, and like Mei we’re all gone with the Wind.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director: Zhang Yimou. Writers: Wang Bin, Li Feng, Zhang Yimou. Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau Tak Wah. Running time: 2 hr. Rated PG-13. 3 1/2 stars.