House of Flying Daggers

Cinema will remain the dominant visual art form this century.

Use House of Flying Daggers anytime you show the premiere place of cinema in the art of modern civilization: The artistry of lens can be compared easily with director Yimou Zhang's other visual masterpiece, Hero. Both films glory in the ballet of martial arts films, improving on Crouching Tiger's introduction to Westerners of magical flying integrated into heroic plots. House of Flying Daggers flies above the other two in inventive epic battles and unforgettable landscapes.

The story is secondary to the images: It's a tale of star-crossed lovers for whom love is a more difficult struggle than the legions of fighters they defeat in the declining Tang Dynasty of 849 AD. What is primary is the astonishing ingenuity of its several set pieces, starting with the dance performance in the Echo Game that captures the Salome allure of a peerless blind call girl Mei (Zhang Zihi) with the magnificent coordination of multiple drums beating to her tune and that of a former lover in a dangerous game of Simon Says. Shigeru Umebayashi's Chinese music, tempered with Western sensibilities, adds a subtle grandeur to every important scene in the film.

Another battle sequence in a green bamboo forest with warriors fighting from trees by sending missiles of sharp sticks to the heroes below is as visually powerful as could be imagined. The final battle extends from a lyrically autumnal field to an all white winter, upon which blood droplets are more stunning than all of Emi Wada's gorgeous costumes.

The denouement is a bit long for me with combatants taking operatic time to die, but I was so drawn to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding's visual imagery I didn't count the minutes. With these masterpieces, it's difficult to think that geniuses like Yimou and Ang Lee could top themselves, but I have a feeling they will. With these directors, cinema will remain the dominant visual art form this century.