TORONTO – A few years back, Zhang Yimou was a bit miffed that fellow filmmaker Ang Lee was faster on the draw in elevating the martial-arts epic to serious cinema.
Now that Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has broken the genre into the mainstream among Western audiences, Zhang is happy to follow his lead.
Zhang's Mandarin-language "Hero," a saga of ancient China starring Jet Li (search), topped the box-office for two straight weekends after its belated U.S. debut in late August.
Close behind it will be Zhang's "House of Flying Daggers," another martial-arts historical tale playing at the Toronto International Film Festival (search) and due in U.S. theaters late this year.
"It's difficult to shoot two together in such a short period of time. After that, I feel like I'm getting addicted to shooting martial-arts films," said Zhang, 52, one of China's most acclaimed filmmakers, whose works include "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "The Road Home."
A fan of martial-arts novels while growing up, Zhang decided to give the genre a try after a string of more contemporary films.
About the time the screenplays for "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" were finished, "Crouching Tiger" became a sensation, topping $100 million at the U.S. box office, the first foreign-language film to cross that mark.
Though he felt frustrated that Lee got there before him, Zhang plowed ahead with his films.
"I appreciate the success of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' because that film did create the market for and the commercial success for 'Hero' and 'Flying Daggers,'" Zhang, speaking through a translator, told The Associated Press at the Toronto festival.
"Hero," a tale of shifting narratives as different versions of an assassination plot unfold through repeated retellings, earned a foreign-language Academy Award nomination after it came out in China in 2002.
"House of Flying Daggers" premiered to an enthusiastic reception at last spring's Cannes Film Festival (search) and may be poised to grab the same mainstream American audience that flocked to "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger."
"I think Ang Lee helped us to open the door worldwide, and we have more chances to bring our movies to America," said "House of Flying Daggers" star Zhang Ziyi (search), who costarred in "Crouching Tiger" and "Hero" and got her start in Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home." "I think for Western audiences, they are more interested now in action movies, martial-arts movies, Chinese culture and history. Now is a chance for us, but the important thing is, you should have good movies. Otherwise, the door will close, close, close."
"House of Flying Daggers" centers on a romantic triangle involving a ninth century rebel (Zhang Ziyi) and two men whose love for her results in tragedy.
Like "Crouching Tiger," Zhang Yimou's two films lift martial-arts sequences to balletic grace. Combatants float through the air in dreamlike fashion, arrows rain down like swarming locusts, duelists' chase one another through treetops.
The films explode with color, passion, intrigue and doomed romance. The characters have greater depth than heroes of more traditional martial-arts flicks, where the action is the main attraction.
Those qualities could be why "Crouching Tiger" and "Hero" have broken beyond the usual martial-arts niche among U.S. moviegoers, Zhang Yimou said.
"It's maybe because both Ang and I are directors of dramas. We're not experts in this genre, so maybe we're looking at it from a different angle," said Zhang, whose next film will be a contemporary drama. "Maybe there's something special about this type of director shooting a martial-arts film. For example, we pay attention to the story lines, the relations of the characters in the film. We have beauty in the action. It's not the traditional way of shooting martial-arts films."