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'Daggers' takes a flight of fancy

Martial-arts films move up into art-house theaters

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Insiders call them "chop-socky." Others call them martial-arts movies. Name them what you will, they're back in style.

In addition to this week's "House of Flying Daggers," recent months have brought "Hero," also directed by Zhang Yimou, plus Takeshi Kitano's remake of the Japanese samurai classic "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi" and "Vol. 2" of Quentin Tarantino's postmodern American spin on the genre, "Kill Bill."

Some purists aren't happy about all this, thinking of true martial-arts cinema as a major film-history phenomenon that shouldn't be messed with. No amount of complaining, however, can outweigh the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the popularity of stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

Since few filmmakers are averse to big box-office possibilities, it's no wonder a versatile Chinese director like Mr. Zhang has returned to traditional action formats, swinging away from the more intimate subjects. What makes both "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" special is the magic cinematic touch he gives them, transcending the genre's plot foundations - violence and treachery - with flights of motion-picture fancy.

Just as important is the fresh twist he's helping martial-arts movies to probe, allowing women to take prime attention (as Uma Thurman's character does in the "Kill Bill" films) from the men who dominated the genre's earlier days. This is central to "House of Flying Daggers," named after a revolutionary cabal in the Tang Dynasty epoch. Ordered to follow a dancer who may be a member, two cops succumb to her beauty, forgetting that in war-torn China things are rarely as they appear.

The movie's action episodes often resemble ballet scenes more than mayhem sequences, abandoning realism in favor of dreamlike images and poetic effects. Although there's nothing deep or intellectual about this, it's far more fun to watch than the dull dramas ("The Road Home," "Not One Less") that Zhang directed in the late 1990s.

"House of Flying Daggers" isn't as vibrantly colorful as "Hero," but it's wonderful to see China's best living filmmaker return to the imaginative heights that marked efforts like "Ju Dou" and "The Story of Qiu Ju" in his early career. It's great, fantastical fun.

Rated PG-13; contains violence and sexuality.

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