Allowing for the earlier film's two-year Miramax embargo, Zhang Yimou packs this year's one-two punch with Hero and now House of Flying Daggers, action dazzlers that give the martial arts genre an art-house facelift. Not that the genre needs a facelift, really -- I've always loved the Shaw Brothers kung-fu bonanzas of the 1960s and 1970s, beguiling headbusters whose international earnings not only irrigated the roots of the Hong Kong film industry, but also provided such brilliant stylists as King Hu and Chang Cheh with space to slash with their visual bravura. To western tastemakers (you know who you are), however, the genre will always be artistically chained to grindhouse theaters and slovenly dubbing, Crouching Tiger or no Crouching Tiger. It takes a respected artist like Zhang to plant some doubt in their prejudiced minds, and even then many critics still say he's just dicking around, capturing wu xia acrobatics when he should be dutifully documenting the harshness of China.
No need to drudge up any theme-vs.-style, word-vs.-image dissertation here -- suffice to say that Hero and House of Flying Daggers are among the most purely beautiful pictures of the year because their beauty is inseparable from their emotions, one springing from the other like water from a faucet. (Compare Zhang's films with something like Closer, where hollow prettiness cloaks pettiness of feeling.) The setting is China 859 A.D., at the end of the Tang Dynasty, when the government's decadence and popular unrest sprouted rebel groups across the last, the most important being the title's revolutionary clan. To draw the insurgents into the open, a randy deputy (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is assigned undercover to escort a sightless beauty (Zhang Ziyi) who may be one of the rebels, with his captain (Andy Lau) following not far behind.
To describe the plot of House of Flying Daggers without littering the synopsis with spoilers may require feats as acrobatic as the ones performed by the characters -- like Hero, the narrative is an elaborate chain of charades and disguises at the service of nothing less than the shaping of a country's history, though the focus here is not so much on magisterial Chinese mythology as in the no less epic struggles of love. Zhang's sweep in Hero led clueless critics to grumble about the alleged conformity of a director whose work has always evoked social turmoil under official oppression (the Sight and Sound wag actually claimed Zhang was now playing for the other side). Zhang has almost invariably shaped his artistic trajectories around the female spirit, and though he sides with the matriarchy of the House of Flying Daggers clan as a positive alternative to the male-propelled government, he's spectacularly sensitive to the emotional agonies of lovers caught between the two factions.
This surging romanticism -- the visualization of betrayal, duty, unguarded desire -- floods the screen with a beauty that, like Ophüls', Von Sternberg's or Minnelli's, is never just decorative. In the courtesan pavilion interiors from which the exquisite Ziyi first emerges, the colors and textures of silk, cloth and screens are made tangible as no picture has since Hou's Flowers of Shanghai, yet the breathtaking flourishes remain at the service of the director's examination of gender control: the destined-to-be-classic "Echo Game" sequence, in which the sleeves of Ziyi's multicolor robe stretch and retract like serpents, is not only a beguiling symphony of movement, but also a study of female force under male gaze (a gaze disarmingly reversed in a later scene, moved out into the open spaces of nature). Similarly, when the characters' exalted feelings are uncorked, the elements weep and rage -- Zhao Xiaoding's cinematography turns a field of flowers iridescent during a lovers' tryst, torrents of emerald-green bamboo shower the warriors, while a sudden snowstorm whitens an emotional battlefield within seconds.
Zhang's mastery extends to computer special effects, another long-degraded aspect of filmmaking. The CGI in House of Flying Daggers is not the swamping Van Helsing brand but a clean, blade-sharp sprinkle that enhances the choreography and visual patterns and reconnects FX with the emotions that have been scrubbed off by sloppy use: it enables the filmmaker to follow a walnut ricocheting off drums or trace the route of an arrow from bow to heart, while turning fight sequences into arias, violence into artistic statement. By the time Kaneshiro, Lau and Ziyi square off in the film's delirious climax, Zhang has reached a level of passion to match the sublimely feverish culminations of Liebestod, Duel in the Sun, Matador and Kill Bill. Just as heightened as Zhang's Mizoguchian Raise the Red Lantern, the film is ultimately no less political for zeroing in on the affairs of the heart, where, as Ziyi's ballad goes, a beautiful woman's ecstasies and pains can turn a country to ruins.
I haven't read any of Lemony Snicket's reportedly delightful-sinister books, so I really can't comment on the faithfulness of the film adaptation, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, though I'm all too familiar with the critical bellyaching. Too Christmassy, not malicious enough, yada yada yada. True, the misfortunes of the Baudelaire children, writer Klaus (Liam Aiken), inventor Violet (Emily Browning), and bite-happy little sister Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman), deserve a dark fabulist like Tim Burton or Danny De Vito at the helm instead of a Chris Columbus-Ron Howard wannabe like Brad Silberling. Still, I enjoyed some of the storybook visual design, Meryl Streep's turn as multiphobic Aunt Josephine, and Jim Carrey as dastardly Count Olaf, his glee relit after a clammering up through Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Less risqué than as the Grinch despite a variety of disguises, Carrey is still a performer who structures his own mise-en-scène, and the film too often keeps him off the center stage. And, since there's apparently a new law stating that no movie shall go without Jude Law in it, he provides the narration.