Zhang Yimou has been foremost among mainland China’s contemporary directors since the international success of his debut feature Red Sorghum, which I encountered at the 1987 New York Film Festival. I first met Zhang himself in Beijing in 1992 when we were both visiting the set of Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine, which starred his then muse and leading lady Gong Li. One evening Zhang proposed dinner at a Mongolian barbeque restaurant, which, because it was situated in the direction of Mongolia (this barbeque was the real thing, he assured us), necessitated a long taxi ride across Beijing. On the way, there was time to talk of many things, but one remark I found so astonishing as to be instantly unforgettable. Asked his favorite movie, Zhang unhesitatingly named, of all things, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music. On the face of it, the choice was hilariously anomalous in various ways. Forget about the cultural distance separating Wise’s Broadway-in-the-Alps sing-along and Zhang’s Chinese peasant background and hardships growing up during the devastation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. More to the point, Zhang’s own films were everything that most classic Hollywood musicals famously weren’t: earthy, sensuous, conspicuously intelligent and politically charged. Yet, precisely because it represented the opposite pole of his own work, Zhang’s love of this critically damned family favorite also had a certain logic. For filmmakers obliged by political exigency to practice a kind of nervy, hard-bitten realism, there’s an inevitable appeal to the cozy rules of genre and the escapism of the purely picturesque.

That logic, arguably, governed the genesis of the last two Zhang films to reach world audiences. Both 2002’s Hero (which Miramax held onto for two years, then re-cut before releasing in the United States last year) and the current, far superior House of Flying Daggers are splashy, big-budget martial arts films made, as Zhang has acknowledged, to follow the commercial trail blazed by Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Since the films have been marketed from the get-go as crossover hits (which Hero, in fact, quickly became), they have been treated in certain quarters as Tarantino-style neo-chopsocky for the global multiplex, rather than the product of a director whose work has often fused political and cultural concerns. Yet it is precisely Zhang’s career that provides both films a context that lifts them above the merely generic.

In the years 1987-1994, he released five films–besides Red Sorghum, they include Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju and To Live–that to my mind are as impressive as any similar group of films released over a comparable period by any filmmaker of the modern era. But Zhang was doing something more than launching an individual career; he was helping revive a national film industry and a cinematic culture that had been purposely decimated by mad Mao and his communist firebrands. Still, though the reformist era of Deng Xiaoping permitted filmmaking to resume, “Fifth Generation” leaders like Zhang and Chen realized–as both told me in Beijing–that only foreign recognition could gain them the leverage they needed in China to pursue their artistic goals.

That recognition came, but at a price. Zhang’s early films comprised trenchant critiques of aspects of Chinese culture, history or political life, critiques that always had a very pointed contemporary relevance. Never comfortable with the films, and ambivalent at best about the foreign acclaim they drew, the Chinese authorities initially seemed confused about how to rein in artists like Zhang, and their first efforts were clumsy and sometimes more embarrassing to the regime than the films themselves, as when the government caused an international uproar with its surreptitious attempt to have Ju Dou‘s Oscar nomination withdrawn. In 1994, however, the regime threw caution to the wind and cracked down severely on China’s filmmakers, giving Zhang and others a new working context in which his former daring was simply no longer permitted. To make matters worse, the crackdown came as his relationship with Gong Li–a collaboration as celebrated and fruitful as that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich–was beginning to unravel.

Zhang’s career since then has been as fitful as its first phase was purposeful. Shanghai Triad (1995), his last film with Gong Li, was a lush period gangster movie bloated with genre conventions and unaccustomed artifice. He tried contemporary urban comedy with Keep Cool (1997), not a bad film but one that didn’t even achieve distribution in the United States. The end of the ’90s saw him turn out two rural melodramas, Not One Less and The Road Home, reportedly made under the influence of the Iranian cinema. Both films were heartfelt, and the latter especially was as beautifully rendered as anything in his career. Yet because they lacked the political boldness of his early work, they continued to suggest a Zhang who was frustrated and working at less than full power.

His two recent martial arts films obviously represent a new tack in his efforts to reach world audiences while avoiding the regime’s wrath. In certain senses, the tack is a curious one. At the time of Not One Less and The Road Home, Zhang contrasted his humanistic Iranian-style films to the “vulgar commercial films” that he despises. By most reckonings, martial arts films would fall into the category of vulgar and commercial–or at least they did until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon escorted them into the Western art houses (and indeed, the multiplexes beyond) where Zhang had enjoyed his greatest successes. Now, it seems, the martial arts film has become a form that he’s able to embrace for his own purposes.

I don’t mean to suggest that those purposes are solely or even primarily commercial. On the other hand, I don’t think the films can be parsed for political meanings in the same way that his earlier films justifiably were. Certain people tried this, however, with Hero, which was interpreted by some as a (bitter, cynical?) admission of the inevitability of totalitarian absolutism in China, and by others as a clever subversion of the same idea. Viewers are free to indulge in such interpretive fancies, of course, but to me the films’ political meanings lie beyond their stories, as I will presently explain. The first thing to note about both movies is that their narratives are self-evidently secondary, as always in martial arts (or wu xia) films, to the primary level of expressive action, which in these cases includes the drama of Zhang’s mastering and trying to forge a personal language within a very formalized and convention-heavy genre.

It’s worth pointing out that unlike the Taiwanese Ang Lee, Zhang did not grow up watching martial arts films; they are alien both to his biography and his sensibility. Hero, his first effort in the form, showed him working with fierce determination and no shortage of ingenuity, but the intensity of his labors and understandable eagerness to impress yielded a film that was self-conscious and overwrought in every particular (including length: Miramax’s trimming had obvious justifications). Perhaps its most emblematic defect was Christopher Doyle’s mannered cinematography, a textbook example of a technical contribution that’s stunning in its own right rather than integral to the work it is supposed to serve.

Martial arts films have often been compared to classic Hollywood genre movies. By that analogy, if the revenge-minded Hero was Zhang’s wu xia western, then the romantic House of Flying Daggers is his musical. Yet in judging the second film superior to the first, I’m not indicating a preference for one genre over the other, but rather saying that Zhang has reached a form that is particularly suited to his own sensibility, and no doubt because of that has achieved an aesthetic result that is entirely of a piece, virtually seamless in its meshing of idea and action.

The new film’s story is, not surprisingly, the sheerest pretext for its flights of emotion and movement. In ninth-century China, the declining Tang dynasty is being opposed by rebel insurgencies, including an alliance called House of Flying Daggers. In trying to locate the group’s mysterious leader, county captains Leo (Andy Lau Tak Wah) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) visit the Peony Pavilion, a luxurious brothel where a new dancer is supposed to be a Flying Daggers member. They discover the dancer, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), is blind, and after taking her prisoner following a spectacular martial-arts battle in the brothel, they decide to let her flee along with Jin posing as her rescuer. You can see where this is leading: Jin and Mei fall in love, and most of the tale is a breathless chase with the lovers pursued by both the government and rebel forces, with emotional switchbacks galore and ample opportunities for acrobatic mayhem.

Part of Zhang’s enterprise here, unquestionably, involves putting his own stamp on conventions that are well-worn in martial arts films. While battles in bamboo groves, for example, are virtually obligatory in the genre, Zhang here stages a show-stopper that includes fighters battling in the high branches as well as on the ground. Yet the director’s greatest achievement, it seems to me, lies in the orchestration of all of the film’s visual and stylistic elements into a symphonic whole, one that is characterized by grace and precision at every moment. Like a great musical by Vincente Minnelli or Gene Kelly, House of Flying Daggers is a shimmering wonder whose meaning conjures the conquest of time and space through the elemental forces of love, beauty and suffering. There was even a moment late in the film, a passage in a snowy mountain meadow, when I couldn’t help thinking of The Sound of Music.

Is any of this political? It is, I think, in the same sense that Zhang’s first films hoped to reach Chinese audiences by learning the language of Western art films, and that he subsequently adopted an Iranian model. Martial arts films are not native to communist China but to the independent cinematic culture that emerged in Hong Kong. Notably, Zhang has never chosen to move abroad to work, as he easily could have. Rather, he has remained in China, learning other cinematic vernaculars and appealing to international audiences where necessary, but always with the singular purpose of ultimately speaking to, and of, his own countrymen.