Wasn't Hero great? Those beautifully choreographed fight scenes, those lavish colour compositions, that brilliant bit with the arrows. Wasn't Jet Li cool? Man, that guy can swish a sword. But hang on, wasn't it also a little, well, just at times, um, a little languid? A touch patience-stretching? That whole Rashomon thing - - did you really know what was going on? It's okay, you can admit it. Just because everyone else thought it was the cat's pyjamas doesn't mean you have to as well.
You get the feeling that, for all the critical acclaim and fab box-office, Zhang Yimou wasn't entirely satisfied either. He's suggested as much since, publicly stating that while Hero was an experiment in the `Wuxia' or martial-arts genre, his follow-up, House Of Flying Daggers, is the real deal. And to be honest, much as we adored his last film, we agree. Hero was a work of art, an operatic actioner to be admired from afar. This film is a ride - a heart-pumping, butt-kicking rollercoaster that scoops its audience up at one end and dumps it at the other, drained and gasping for breath.
Of course, there'll be those who kvetch. Where's the poetry, they'll ask? The epic grandeur? The armies that stretch to the horizon and the battles that last an eternity? True, apart from its ravishing opening sequence - - an Echo Dance that sees Zhang Ziyi's sightless courtesan Mei using her gown's billowing folds to replicate random drumbeats - Daggers can't rival Hero's visual opulence. What it does boast, however, is a linear, romantic narrative that connects its succession of eye-popping set-pieces far more satisfyingly than Hero's chrono-mangling plot-fudge.
What's more, Daggers moves - like the clappers. No sooner has Mei been jailed for pulling a sword on Leo (Andy Lau) than she's sprung by Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who passes himself off as a mercenary in the hope she'll take him to her leader. No sooner have they made it to the country than they're ambushed by soldiers on horseback. No sooner have they fled into the forest than they're ambushed again, by gravity-defying commandos who sprint up trees and hurl bamboo spears from their summits.
Then there are the daggers themselves, swooping angels of death that spin, veer and pirouette through the air like the ultimate smart missile. And just when you think you've seen it all, Yimou orchestrates a stunning snowstorm finale that makes Kill Bill: Vol. 1's denouement look like a catfight in a meat locker. Yes, it's all rather silly and overblown. But it's never boring, not for a second - which in our book gives it the edge over Hero and, hell, even Crouching Tiger.
After Hero's cerebral elegance, Zhang Yimou cuts loose with a breathlessly exciting spectacular. They'll make a great double-bill one day.
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