Zhang Yimou: Martial artist

Zhang Yimou's moving new film combines violence with dance. Julia Stuart meets China's most feted director
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The Independent Culture

One can expect one's eyes to prick at the cinema when the hero or heroine finally snuffs it. But never before have I had a lachrymose moment simply because a scene was such a sumptuous, artful joy. And certainly not during a martial arts film, of all things.

Sitting in front of me, looking grave, is the person responsible. He is the Chinese director Zhang Yimou. The scene is in his latest film, House of Flying Daggers. A corrupt government is locked in battle with rebel armies, the largest of which is the House of Flying Daggers. Two police captains (Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro) try to infiltrate it by helping to free from prison its blind leader Mei (Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame). Several twists and a love triangle later, blood literally flies with the camera tracking each drop's trajectory across a snowy landscape.

Zhang directed Ju Dou, the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Oscar, Raise the Red Lantern and Hero (the most successful film in Chinese history) both of which were also nominated. He is known for being exacting but he is pleased with this film.

"There is more humanity and human emotion in it than other martial arts movies," he says, in a deep monotone and through a translator. "I used to make artistic romantic movies. I wanted to combine romance with martial arts."

The sequence I found so moving, and which provoked spontaneous cheering during the press screening at Cannes, was Zhang's first attempt at combining classical dance with martial arts. Set in a high-class brothel, it starts with one of the police captains flicking a bean at one of numerous drums in a semicircle. Mei, standing in the middle, then hits the same drum with a flick of her long sleeve. The captain continues to throw beans at different drums while Mei, on a wire, hits them with her sleeves in the same sequence, during a mesmerising frenzy of balletic turns and lunges.

One of the director's biggest challenges was to make the fight in a bamboo forest - a prerequisite in the genre - different from all those which had gone before. "I almost gave up doing the scene," he admits. "Then I thought about Western action movies with car chases and a helicopter in the air."

Zhang had the stars charging along the ground with 20 government agents chasing them off the ground, grabbing bamboo stem after bamboo stem (which were, in fact, steel poles painted green as the bamboo would have bent). No computer-generated effects were used - the actors in the trees were acrobats suspended 40ft off the ground.

The final scene also presented problems. Snow fell unexpectedly early, posing enormous issues of continuity. Zhang decided to include the changing of seasons and makes no apologies for the unsettling blood-soaked snow. "I wanted to present the emotion of a love triangle moving from love to hate."

The director, who was born in Xian in 1950, is the son of a rebel soldier. His father fought for the Kuomintang (nationalist) army that battled the communists for control of China, and was branded a counter-revolutionary, stigmatised and often unemployed. "When I think about my childhood the very first thing that comes into my mind is the craving for meat," says Zhang. "I was from a poor family and we could only eat meat once a year. Also my family was branded as not having a good background and I always felt inferior."

Does he still feel that way? "I don't feel inferior as such, but in my character there's still a hint of that feeling. I'm well known in China, but I still like to hide away."

Zhang was still at school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. He was sent away to work on farms and as a labourer in a spinning mill. It was during this time that he twice donated blood to buy his first still camera.

Zhang says he is used to the restrictions of working in China, where a number of his films have been banned. "The very first thing a director in China thinks when he gets a script is not the artistic aspect, but where it will be allowed to be shown." He would have preferred to have made the love scenes in House of Flying Daggers more passionate. "As an artist I would like to be entirely free, but I just try to make my work different. If there's one tiny thing that is unusual or unconventional, it's very precious and then I feel happy."

'House of Flying Daggers' opens on Boxing Day