House of hollow timbers

Zhang Ziyi plays another enigmatic protegée in director Zhang Yimou's follow-up to the breathtaking Hero.

The heir to 'Hero' falls short

Forget Sideways (which received so much advance hype that some moviegoers felt they were being sold a forged masterpiece) and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (which wasn't half the movie the first was, yet inexplicably earned far better reviews); the most overrated movie of 2004 is Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers.

The Kill Bill allusion is illustrative, as House is also part of an imbalanced pair: Yimou's Hero opened only a few months ago on these shores, shares much of House's sensibility, but is a demonstrably better film. Even so, its screwy political overtones (justifying unnecessary war as a path to peace, lionizing a man who could stop the march of bloodshed but didn't) make many of us wary of embracing it wholeheartedly. So along fly some Daggers, in which politics matter far less than broken hearts and instant love, and all who muffled their oohs and ahhs at the first film decide this one's a triumph.

The story isn't as epic as Hero's: In ancient China, a law officer is sent undercover to find a female assassin who belongs to a Robin Hood clan that is causing headaches for the privileged class. He arrests her, but falls in love with her immediately; when he springs her from jail and takes her on the lam, we don't know whether he's using her to track her comrades (that's what he tells his boss) or trying to win her heart. Probably a bit of both.

Along the way, there's a lot of fighting, and some of the showy set pieces that staggered the admirers of Hero. But with one exception, the set pieces here are flat, incapable of rousing the senses. A scene early on stretches the suspension of disbelief (always a necessity in wire-assisted martial arts films, where characters run on water and zoom through the air) to the point of laughability: The film's deaf heroine is subjected to a game in which beans are thrown at a circle of drums, and she must identify the order in which the drums are hit. She performs perfectly, even when a bowl full of beans is tossed, causing hundreds of drum hits; her jumping, dancing response would be a staggering piece of cinema if you could believe in it even just a little.

   House of Flying Daggers

Dir. Zhang Yimou; writ. Feng Li, Bin Wang, Zhang Yimou; feat. Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Dandan Song (PG-13)

The set piece that works is staged in the thick of a bamboo forest, where soldiers perch in treetops that bend dangerously while they attack travelers on the ground. (It's different enough from a similar scenario in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that it doesn't feel like a rip-off.) They sway menacingly and eventually ensnare their prey in a thicket of bamboo spears. It's one of the few places in the film where the fight choreography isn't too precious for its own good.

Visually, House lacks the opulence of its predecessor. Hero recast sequence after sequence in a bold monochromatic color scheme; this film sticks largely to the natural colors of wheat, grass, and snow, even when we enter the all-green world of the Flying Daggers themselves. It's practically impossible to care for the characters - a stumbling block in Hero that was ameliorated by the magnetic Tony Leung and Maggie Chung - so their shifting allegiances matter very little. Toward the end, a character that is clearly dead staggers upright to conduct one last showdown, and a groan may emerge unbidden from your throat. Can't these guys die and be dead, leaving me to wait in peace for the real successor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, instead of this beautiful but soulless imposter?

By John DeFore