House of Flying Daggers is more successful as a visual study of forests and the ass-kickers who live there than as the cohesive fable it aspires to be. It is, basically, a series of intricately choreographed martial arts sequences set against various colour-saturated forests — green bamboo, red/orange autumnal deciduous, stark white birch — with some wild-flower fields and rolling hills thrown in to create a sense of tone. Director Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad, Hero) knows how to milk a set piece for all it's worth and his fight sequences make the most of these locations. But interrupting the symmetry of this visual feast is its underdeveloped narrative, which is characterised by static dialogue and unlikely plot twists. The story, like its predecessor Hero, is set in feudal China at a time when the ruling classes live in constant fear of rebel plots to overthrow them. The most powerful of these rebel groups is called the House of Flying Daggers, a mysterious and deadly collective whose preferred method of destruction is the thrown knife. Hoping to infiltrate the group and locate its headquarters, two police captains arrange to rescue a blind revolutionary from prison and follow her back to the Flying Daggers. Along the way there's some double-crossing, a love story and lots of crying. All this must have looked good on paper but there's a stiffness to the dialogue that stands in contrast to the dynamic fight scenes. So, after each battle things tend to grind to a halt while characters bring the exposition up to speed, then there's another battle, followed by more awkward chitchat. It's not that the story is boring; it's just that the telling of it lacks the finesse brought to the more kinetic elements of the film. Perhaps the dialogue is more nuanced in its original Mandarin. This would explain Zhang's curious choice for the film's ending. Instead of giving us the major battle the entire film has been leading up to, he chooses instead to resolve the story's more personal aspects. (Mongrel Media)