Fine China, Kung Fu Style

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Perhaps Hollywood can't be trusted to make Hollywood-style movies anymore. When ancient-history films lumber like the elephantine Alexander, or when technological gewgaws abduct the magic of fantasy in films like The Polar Express, where can a curious cinephile go? China. That's where director Zhang Yimou blended history book with graphic novel in the worldwide hit Hero, and whence he returns with the even zippier, more cunning kung fu caper, House of Flying Daggers.

In the late years of the Tang dynasty, an insurgency has arisen, led by the mysterious Flying Daggers group. Government officers Leo (Andy Lau, of Infernal Affairs) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are assigned to stamp out the conspiracy. Their first stop is a bordello, where the madam tells Leo she has a lovely blind girl, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), to dance for him — a dance of love, deception and death.

This movie has enough wirework and furious swordplay to raise an audience's collective gasp of amazement. Knives, swords and spears move like fatal Frisbees, careering toward their targets with the help of some supple computer trickery. The narrative is no less devious: every loyalty, emotional and political, must be questioned, tested, fought for.

The cast list is like a convocation of the Three Chinas: Taiwan's Kaneshiro, Hong Kong's Lau and the mainland's Zhang Ziyi. All are terrific, but the lady shines brightest. Fierce in a battle with eight soldiers, coquettish as she bathes before the enrapt Jin, Zhang is charisma incarnate. She is already nearing American stardom, playing the lead in Memoirs of a Geisha. You can bet she will reveal a new kind of star quality, even as the dazzling Daggers shows Hollywood how to make an action film with depth and pizazz.