Zhang Yimou's ''House of Flying Daggers" is, hands down, the most visually ravishing movie of the year. It has sequences of balletic martial arts action that can knock you back, open-mouthed, in your comfy multiplex chair. Yet the movie amounts to frustratingly little by the time it's over, and you come out treasuring the pieces while wondering where the movie went. It's a perfect example of how far production design and editing won't take you when the story's not there.
For a good long while, though, ''Daggers" takes you places you've never imagined. Set during the ninth-century Tang Dynasty, the story is initially a martial-arts-spiced period thriller about two imperial deputies trying to infiltrate a rebel organization known as the House of the Flying Daggers.
The Daggers are Robin Hoods -- steal from the rich, give to the poor, all that -- and they're impossible to tell apart from the rest of the downtrodden populace. Captain Leo (Hong Kong film star Andy Lau) arranges for his friend Captain Jin (the striking Taiwanese/Japanese matinee idol Takeshi Kaneshiro) to pose as a dissolute playboy and visit the Peony Pavilion, where a blind courtesan named Mei is rumored to be a member of the rebels.
Enter Ziyi Zhang as Mei, and up goes the film's intensity by several dozen notches. The young actress, of course, stole ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) from Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat, and she served as headstrong support in Zhang Yimou's last film, ''Hero" (2002), but she has a full-on romantic lead role here, and she wears it with a quality that can only be described as serene excitability. Maybe this is simple focus: Mei does things that may be easy for the character of a martial-arts-trained blind woman in a Hong Kong action movie but that look close to impossible for an actress who has to play her.
Take the dazzling early scenes in the Peony Pavilion -- sequences that are as close to a working definition of cinematic magic as currently exists. To ascertain if Mei is one of the Daggers (but, really, just to give the audience a thrill) Jin tests her in what can only be called a medieval Chinese version of the old kiddie game Simon: He tosses beans at an encircling ring of drums and she has to match the rhythm by striking the drums with the 10-foot sleeves of her robe. (This is after she's used those sleeves to wield a sword in a fight sequence, by the way.)
As photographed by the film's real hero, cinematographer Zhao Ziaoding, the scene is an exquisitely crafted riot of color, sound, and sensation, and ''House of Flying Daggers" keeps tossing out more showstoppers just like it. You're so drunk on movie overstim that you may not notice that the story's heading south.
Jin falls in love with Mei -- it's the sleeves, I tell you -- and the two go on the lam through a series of meadows and forests and bamboo thickets tinted with the hues of a brooding fairy tale. Close behind is Leo with the imperial troops, and Jin, still pretending to honor his mission, has to pretend to kill a few to earn Mei's trust, so she'll lead him to the rebels. (This is an excuse for the director to break out the arrow-cam for a literally bravura shot.) Things get complicated, and at a certain point Jin starts having to protect Mei for real.
Then things get really complicated, with the audience's suspension of disbelief sorely tested by a tangle of romantic revelations and by a geometrically increasing sense of melodrama that outstrips physical probability. It's one thing for the characters to leap magically through the air; it's quite another for one of the them to blithely run around the last third of the film with a dagger sticking out the back. By the final scenes of ''Daggers," you're torn between admiration and muffled laughter, and a film this delicately florid can't afford the latter.
Zhao's camerawork deserves maximum kudos, as do Tony Ching Siu-Tung's direction of the action sequences, Huo Tingxiao's production design, Emi Wada's costumes, and Cheng Long's editing. Bouquets all around, and by all means see the movie for them. But it bears asking exactly what Zhang Yimou is up to here. ''Hero" marked the first time the great Chinese director of ''Raise the Red Lantern" (1991) and ''The Road Home" (1999), among many others, had forayed into the action genre, and while it took two years for the movie to make it to US theaters, it was one of this summer's sensations when it did.
That's probably why ''House of Flying Daggers" has opened here so quickly, and lucky for us. Yet some detractors have accused Zhang of jumping on the ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" bandwagon, and there may be some truth in that. As ingenious as the ''Rashomon"-style triple narrative of ''Hero" was, the message was fuzzy: Was it an endorsement of totalitarianism and ''superior" culture spread by all-conquering warlords? Or was it a warning that such warlords are to be trusted at one's peril?
The ambiguity seemed accidental, lost amid the splendid visions, and so it is with ''Daggers," where the climactic face-off between the rebels and the imperial troops never materializes for reasons that seem to have little to do with artistic intent. Zhang chooses to follow his trio of ill-starred lovers to the snowy ends of the earth (Ukraine, actually, and it's breathtaking) where their final passion play becomes timeless and sweeping and iconic. And also, it has to be said, pretty silly.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.