Zhang Yimou's ravishing "House of Flying Daggers" nabs its audience early, stealing our hearts with a scene so glorious, we're instantly helpless in the movie's thrall. In the late days...

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Zhang Yimou’s ravishing “House of Flying Daggers” nabs its audience early, stealing our hearts with a scene so glorious, we’re instantly helpless in the movie’s thrall. In the late days of the Tang Dynasty, at a house of pleasure known as the Peony Pavilion, a new dancer is ushered onto the floor to perform for an unruly guest. She is Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind, fine-boned beauty with the posture of a ballerina and the intent jaw of a sharpshooter, and she dances with grace and not a little menace, her silken sleeves unfurling like weapons.

But it’s not just a dance that Zhang Yimou has in mind, it’s the Echo Game, in which beans are tossed, in slow-motion, at the room’s circular array of flowered drums. Mei, at the center of the circle, can’t see the beans’ trajectory but must re-create the drumbeats, using her leaping body and whirling coral sleeves; she becomes an explosion of silk, blooming in the air like a dangerous flower.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer


“House of Flying Daggers,” with Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Song Dandan. Directed by Zhang Yimou, from a screenplay by Li Feng, Yimou and Wang Bin. 119 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts violence, and some sexuality. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Several theaters.

This is the kind of color-crazed gorgeousness that just might cause swooning in the aisles — and, coming early on, it’s a tough act to follow. Luckily Zhang Yimou has more surprises in store; his film is like an over-the-top musical, with every number trying to outdo the one that came before it.

Like Zhang Yimou’s previous film, “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers” wallows in the voluptuousness of seasonal color. Its plot, an unabashedly romantic love triangle hidden within an action-film structure, is secondary to its visual style; indeed, you might be so busy admiring the sights that you quite lose track of what’s going on. In a nutshell: Mei, who may be the daughter of the leader of the underground alliance House of Flying Daggers, is pursued by two of the county’s captains, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) — both of whom, it turns out, find themselves in love with her. (Well, can you blame them? This fragile-looking flower can flatten four men at once, all the while keeping her toes perfectly pointed.)

This star-crossed trio chases across yellow meadows peppered with cream-colored flowers, climbs green bamboo stalks that reach to the sky, duels in a vast field as picture-perfect snowflakes fall, until that whiteness is stained red with blood.

Throughout, the ever-surprising Mei proves the equal of any adversary, and Zhang Ziyi plays her with perfect control, calm with occasional flashes of fury. And the action sequences are splendid, especially those titular daggers, which soar through the air almost lazily, already sure of their destination.

One might argue that “House of Flying Daggers” takes just a hair too long to end, that its plot is a bit silly, its music (by Shigeru Umebayashi, including a dreamy closing-credits theme song performed by American opera star Kathleen Battle) a bit over-the-top in its emotion. One might also look at a rosy-orange sunset and just see the end of another day — but, really, one shouldn’t. This is the sort of film we’re intended to wallow in, barely coming up for air — so dazzled, we barely need to breathe.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com