Hugely expensive Chinese export, hugely profitable at home, clearly wants to get in on some of that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon action, that flying, floating, backflipping, corkscrewing, slow-motion martial-arts action, an ambition as unexpected from Zhang Yimou as it was from Ang Lee. The hero in question goes by the name of Nameless, a master swordsman who, by dispatching three assassins with prices on their heads, gains an audience with the ruthless ruler of Qin, architect of a plan to unite the seven warring states of ancient China, at whatever cost in human lives. How this hero came to dispatch the assassins -- Long Sky, Flying Snow, Broken Sword -- is told several times, each successive version seemingly coming nearer the truth (and thereby diverging ever farther from Kurosawa's Rashomon), as well as coming nearer a state of spiritual enlightenment. On that path, the action fan will be asked to ponder the invalidity of violence and the nobility of sacrifice. But he will also be treated to the dream cast of Jet Li (working for a change with a real filmmaker), Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, and Donnie Yen; and he will be regaled with anything-goes combat scenes that not only defy gravity but defy logic, suspense, and human interest to boot. The action -- stylized and aestheticized to within, or beyond, an inch of its life -- is staged in varied locales: in a gambling house dripping with rainwater, in a maelstrom of golden leaves, in the middle of a lake, in a spaghetti-Western bleached mountainscape; and it is outfitted in co-ordinated solid-color uniforms of red, blue, white, green. For all the variety, there is something of a sameness about it; and the separate tellings of a single story tend to hammer home the feeling of repetitiveness. Zhang is without question a highly skilled professional, a crafter of well-composed, well-balanced, well-framed images; and his workmanship is a pleasure to watch. Even so, the touted "beauty" of the thing seems to a large degree an illusion of splash and dash: the flapping fabric in the wind, the battalion of candles, the locust clouds of arrows (reminiscent of Kurosawa's Ran), the geometrical masses of soldiers, the wonders of nature. The director's immediately preceding Happy Times arguably achieves a far greater beauty without recourse to scenery and spectacle. (2002) — Duncan Shepherd
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