American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Movie imagery, which has grown brutal and ugly in many of the new high-tech action pictures, may yet be redeemed by the elegance of martial arts pictures from the East. Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers," like his "Hero" (2004) and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) combines excitement, romance and astonishing physical beauty; to Pauline Kael's formula of "kiss kiss bang bang," we can now add "pretty pretty."
Forget about the plot, the characters, the intrigue, which are all splendid in "House of Flying Daggers," and focus just on the visuals. There are interiors of ornate elaborate richness, costumes of bizarre beauty, landscapes of mountain ranges and meadows, fields of snow, banks of autumn leaves and a bamboo grove that functions like a kinetic art installation.
The action scenes set in these places are not broken down into jagged short cuts and incomprehensible foreground action. Zhang stands back and lets his camera regard the whole composition, wisely following Fred Astaire's belief that to appreciate choreography you must be able to see the entire body in motion. Tony Scott of the New York Times is on to something when he says the film's two most accomplished action scenes are likely to be "cherished like favorite numbers from 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'An American in Paris.' " Try making that claim about anything in "The Matrix" or "Blade: Trinity."
The scenes in question are the Echo Game, and a battle in a tall
bamboo grove. The Echo Game takes place inside the Peony Pavilion, a luxurious brothel that flourishes in the dying days of the Tang Dynasty, 859 A.D. An undercover policeman named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) goes there on reports that the new dancer may be a member of the House of Flying Daggers, an underground resistance movement. The dancer is Mei (Zhang Ziyi, also in "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger"), and she is blind; martial arts pictures have always had a special fondness for blind warriors, from the old "Zatoichi" series about a blind swordsman to Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi" remake (2004).