Dir/scr: ZhangYimou. Chi-HK. 2004. 119mins

Beyond a doubt the mostvisually ravishing film on offer at Cannes this year, Zhang Yimou's return tothe sword-fighting genre - following last year's Hero - mixes action,romance and a touch of dance to uneven but often thrilling effect.

Acquired by Sony PicturesClassics in the US, the film is unlikely to be as significant a crossover hitas Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (also released in that territory bySPC) but should find a wide and appreciative audience, with a strong femalecomponent, given Zhang Ziyi's turn as a singing, dancing, knife-throwing actionfemme. Ancillary life should flourish given that many of its action sequencesand outrageous stunts are ones to watch again and again in their own right. Thefilm premiered out of competition at Cannes.

The slightly threadbarestory is really an excuse for derring-do topped off with love-trianglemelodrama. In 859AD, the Tang dynasty is in decline, and the government facesrevolt led by guerrilla armies including the 'House of Flying Daggers', a RobinHood-like group now under a mysterious new leader.

The old leader's daughter issaid to be working as a showgirl in a Peony Pavillion house of entertainment,and police captain Leo (Lau) dispatches his lieutenant Jin (Kaneshiro)incognito to check her out. The new girl there is Mei (Zhang), a beautifulblind dancer. The lecherous Yin immediately pounces on her, but when Leointervenes, Mei proves her credentials by performing the extraordinary EchoDance, a routine involving scarves, drums and ricocheting beans - a furious bitof virtuoso razzle-dazzle that won spontaneous applause at the press screening.

Mei is arrested only to bereleased by a mysterious warrior - Jin, prosecuting his duplicitous mission.But as the two go on the run from Leo's army, they gradually fall in love,while Mei proves a prodigious dab hand at martial arts, flying daggers beingjust part of her repertoire.

The film loses momentum inits mid-section, the double-crosses and shifts of identity becoming a touchwearying, but the final romantic stand-off gives the film operatic new wings,as the principals confront each other in a snowstorm.

The fact that there are onlythree main characters - with Song Dandan's benignly manipulative madam hoveringin the background - gives the film a curiously chamber feel. It suffersslightly from knocking us out so decisively in the first act with the EchoDance, but there are equally flamboyant routines throughout, notably a showdownin a forest, with sharp bamboo projectiles zipping perilously out of nowhere.

The flying daggers of thetitle also feature heavily in some stunning and downright cheeky digitalroutines, in which they glide through mid-air like radio-controlled missiles,leaving you wondering whatever happened to the laws of gravity, but you willadmire the film's cheek.

The art direction andcostumes are on a level of artistry equal to the action. The Peony Pavillionsequence displays a lushness on a par with Bollywood at its most fanciful, witha gorgeous palette of blues, oranges and subtly-matched deep pastels. Coloursthemselves effectively become narrative elements: when the members of theFlying Daggers gang eventually reveal themselves, we gasp in part because theircostumes are such an extraordinary shade of green.

Digitals allow Zhang Yimouto manipulate settings to genuinely magical effect, as in the finale, where alush autumnal landscape turns white in seconds, thanks to a sudden snowstorm.The sound design too is stunning and richly complex.

Allowing for the schematicnature of their characters, the three leads generate gusto and charisma, withLau's duplicitous cop proving more complex than he first appears, andKaneshiro's initially boorish rake becoming a genuinely heroic charmer asevents develop. Overall, however, the film belongs to Zhang Ziyi, who takes heraction-girl ingenue persona to further peaks of prowess, her proving not justbreathtakingly athletic but also a romantic heroine in the grand sense.

Zhang Yimou directs withmasterful panache, and seems to have found a far more comfortable mode to workin following the low-budget mawkishness of his late 1990s films such as TheRoad Home. Audiences susceptible to a heady blend of kitsch, poetic finesseand kick-ass action will have a treat, even if the film does not finally inducethe full swoon.

Prod cos: EdkoFilms, Zhang Yimou Studio Productions, BeijingNew Picture Film Co
Fr dist:
Int'l sales:
Focus Features
Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou
Zhao Xiaoding
Prod des:
Huo Tingxiao
Action chor:
Tony Ching Siu-tung
Ed: ChengLong
Costumes: EmiWada
Music: ShigeruUmebayashi
Main cast: TakeshiKaneshiro Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi,Song Dandan