Ten years ago this month, Zhang Yimou's To Live opened in U.S. theaters. The historical melodrama maps one family's transformation from high-flying property owners in pre-1949 China to sent-down farmers caught in the Cultural Revolution. Zhang's career is marked by similar political extremesbut in reverse order. Starting as a cinematographer in the Beijing studio system, he worked his way to the director's chair and eventually helmed several international hits. With House of Flying Daggers (opening December 3), Zhang finds himself atop a radically transformed industry. "Twenty years ago, no one talked about how well your film was going to do," he says. "Now all you hear about is the box office and pleasing audiences."
Lest you think him a re-educated capitalist, Zhang insists he made Daggers as "an attempt to resist Hollywood and bring Chinese people back into cinemas to watch local films." As with his previous film, Hero, Daggers is a revisionist wuxia epic bursting with hyper-aestheticized action. The opening sequence, involving an elaborate "echo game," is a knockout. "The scene was supposed to be pure dance with no fighting," Zhang explains. "The choreographer worked on it for six months and Zhang Ziyi practiced for two months. But I didn't feel it was right and I wanted to incorporate action. I think merging dance with martial arts challenged people's conceptions of what this type of film could do."
Daggers' fight scenes unfold in such dreamy locations as a bamboo forest, a golden meadow, and a snowbound ravine. "Four-fifths of the shooting time went into the action sequences," Zhang says. "The hardest part was doing something new because it's such a powerful genre in China. There have been thousands of these movies and each year more are coming out." Taking on writing-directing-producing duties on two action epics has left Zhang exhausted. His next project marks a return to smaller budgets and concerns the relationship between a father and son. "I enjoy bringing all of my experience making 'art' films to the table when I make films like Hero and Daggers," he says. "I don't see any contradiction between commercial and art cinema."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.