House of flying daggers

By Ewan McDonald, Reviewed by Ewan McDonald

Herald rating: * * * *

The continuing story of the remarkable emergence of Chinese movie-making - witness Ang Lee's staggering Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Zhang Yimou's earlier Raise the Red Lantern and recent Hero and now this.

Again, it is a convoluted and confusing plot, full of disturbing characters and layered with intrigue, ornate sets, gorgeous costumes, panoramic vistas and textures drawn from nature.

We go back a millennium or more to the Tang Dynasty of 850AD, a brothel called the Peony Pavilion and something known as the Echo Game. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), an undercover policeman, goes to the Peony Pavilion to find whether the new, blind dancer, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), is a member of an underground movement called the House of Flying Daggers.

Mei dances for Jin and his colleague, Leo (Andy Lau), challenges her to the Echo Game. All you need to know about this is that it offers the director an opportunity for a remarkable sequence of elegant, athletic movie-making that will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Crouching Tiger ... or the Visa commercial based on it.

Jin and Mei realise they must work together to escape from the emperor's soldiers. Mei will not work out that Jin may not be what he seems. Neither will work out that they will fall in love on their journey, which may take them to the secret headquarters of the House of Flying Daggers.

Neither of them, nor Leo and his chasing band of warriors, nor you, the viewer, will work out what is likely to happen from one moment to another. Which has always been the joy and the left-field improbability that results when the action completely overrides the plot in the remarkable emergence of Chinese movie-making in the past few years.

The DVD features a superlative 45-minute Making of ... in which Zhang Yimou recasts the feature as a love story rather than an action movie, backed up by backstage interviews, designers' and costumers' notes, and the cast and crew's reception at Cannes. Yimou and Ziyi provide the commentary, but the other features - visual effects, scene-to-storyboard comparisons, some nondescript interactive bits and pieces - are rudimentary.

* DVD, Video Rental June 15

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