If “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” opened mainstream Americans’ eyes to the martial arts epic, director Zhang Yimou may be about to grab their hearts and minds.
Zhang this year delivers a two-fisted dose of grand and rousing cinema, first with the belated U.S. release of “Hero,” his Academy Award-nominated saga of nobility and sacrifice for the greater good that stars Jet Li.
At year’s end comes Zhang’s second historical adventure set in ancient China, “House of Flying Daggers,” which premiered to an enthusiastic reception at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival.
“Hero,” a runner-up to “Nowhere in Africa” for the 2002 foreign-language Oscar, presents a briskly paced, cleverly plotted tale that unfolds through a circuitous series of flashbacks.
The movie opens with a deceptively simple setup by Zhang, who co-wrote the screenplay. Some 2,000 years ago, China is divided into seven warring kingdoms battling for dominance. The strongest, Qin, is ruled by a ruthless king (Chen Dao Ming), determined to unify the land and become supreme ruler through bloodshed.
Three enemy assassins — Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), her lover Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), and Sky (Donnie Yen) — have vowed to slay the king of Qin. For 10 years, the king has lived as a recluse behind fortified walls and legions of bodyguards, offering royal bounties to whoever can eliminate his would-be killers.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” co-star Zhang Ziyi, who also stars in “House of Flying Daggers,” plays Broken Sword’s devoted acolyte, Moon.
One day a man called Nameless (Li) shows up bearing the weapons of the three assassins. Brought before the king, Nameless spins the story of how he overcame Flying Snow, Broken Sword and Sky, through deception and lightning-fast skill with a blade.
After initially welcoming this unassuming hero, the king turns suspicious and responds with his own hypothetical chronicle of Nameless’ encounters with the assassins.
What follows is a fiery exchange of imaginings and reimaginings as the stories hurtle through wild variations toward the ultimate truth. Each version of events is an engrossing film within the film, allowing Zhang and his team to showcase glorious swordplay and the gifted cast to take on a range of roles all within the confines of the same characters.
In one tale, jealousy reigns. In the next, selfless love. In another, characters face death with valorous resignation.
The action is sumptuously shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle and beautifully enriched by Tan Dun’s plaintive score and sound editing that viscerally captures the sizzle of flying arrows, the twang of steel and the whisper or roar of the wind.
The balletic fight scenes are at least as graceful as those in “Crouching Tiger.” A duel between Flying Snow and Moon — artfully shot amid a swirl of fallen leaves and fought with carnal ferocity by Zhang and stoic fatalism by Cheung — is especially memorable.
Through a crescendo of climaxes, the film arrives at a place of primal heroism, the point in history where reality blurs to myth. As different as the renditions of Nameless’ adventures are, they all share common threads, the film’s structure offering insights into how legends are born out of transfigured truth.