The reunion of filmmaker Zhang Yimou with his one-time muse and leading lady, Gong Li, over ten years after their personal falling-out, post-Shanghai Triad, makes this film into a real "event," and the actress brings to it an inner fire to outglow even its molten-lava color scheme. In addition to which, the director's dynamic visual style demonstrates exceptional weight, balance, timing, and agility. In short, exceptional command of the screen. Watching his shots fall into place is a little like watching the piece-by-piece construction of a palace. Or temple. Nothing humbler would quite do justice to a tale of courtly and amatory intrigue (Tang Dynasty, 10th Century) that aspires to Shakespearean, even Sophoclean, tragedy. Without dispute, the film is somewhat talky and slow, but if it's preferable nevertheless to Zhang's Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the reason in large part would be precisely the long postponement of the gravity-defying martial arts. Defying, that is, of not only Newton's sort of gravity but that of Shakespeare and Sophocles as well. Once the battles break out, they severely damage the sense of seriousness, although never the sense of style. With Chow Yun-Fat. (2006) — Duncan Shepherd
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