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Crouching monster, hidden agendas 

If you're planning to see Incident at Loch Ness(Saturday, January 22, 8 p.m., Dryden Theatre, 271-4090), don't read beyond this paragraph. Seriously, the less you know about the film, the more you'll probably enjoy it. And if you decide to continue with this review, you'll hopefully be persuaded to see Incident but you'll come across the spoiler that will harm the already tenuous magic of this entertaining film. So don't say I didn't warn you.

We're welcomed into the California home of acclaimed German auteur Werner Herzog during a dinner party to kick off his latest project, a documentary called The Enigma of Loch Ness, in which he plans to explore the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. Herzog's producer Zak Penn (writer of X-Men 2) is there, as is the film's director of photography, Gabriel Beristain (he shot S.W.A.T.). This is all captured on film because cinematographer John Bailey (As Good As It Gets) is, in turn, making a documentary on Herzog called Herzog in Wonderland.

Both productions head for Scotland, where Penn has assembled a capable crew including a humorless boat captain and a crypto-zoologist with a reassuring beard who definitely believes in the Loch Ness Monster. The scientist has odd theories regarding laundry, carries an unidentifiable tentacle with him at all times, and challenges the Nessie naysayers to prove their point: "Where are the books written about the non-evidence?" Their boat, the Discovery IV, doesn't have a I, II, or III that preceded it, but Penn thought "Discovery IV" sounded cool. And then the impossibly hot sonar operator in the tiny yet patriotic bikini shows up.

Herzog and the audience realize at about the same time that Penn has been tinkering with the production, just in case there's no actual Loch Ness Monster. But Penn convinces Herzog to stay on, although Herzog admits, "I should have quit right then and there, and I should have quit the day after, or the next day." Some crew members decide to leave, others stick around to bicker, and... wait a second. What just rammed the boat?

There are pros and cons to understanding what's happening here. Knowing that you're watching a Spinal Tap/Blair Witch-type creation directed by Zak Penn and co-written by Herzog and Penn allows you to take pleasure in this funny mockumentary from the beginning without having to solve the film's mysteries. You're able to look for the telltale signs that give the film away, and it may make you question the authenticity of documentaries past.

But there's also something to be said for letting a movie happen and going along for the ride. Too bad you no longer have that option. I warned you, remember?

In the Peony Pavilion, a sumptuous entertainment house (read: brothel) in 9th-century China, a blind courtesan named Mei (Zhang Ziyi, Hero) and a cop named Leo (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs --- a worthy rental) are playing the Echo Game. He throws a stone at a drum and she answers by hitting that same drum with her sleeve.

By the time he empties the entire bowl of stones in one shot, the Echo Game has turned into a kinetic, gravity-defying ballet. That's only one of the mindblowing set pieces in House of Flying Daggers, a breathtaking but ultimately distant film from director Zhang Yimou.

Leo and fellow cop Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro from Wong Kar-Wai's awesome Chungking Express) arrest Mei after receiving a tip that she is actually a member of the House of Flying Daggers, a rebel organization doing battle with the corrupt powers-that-be. Jin goes undercover and breaks Mei out of jail so he can infiltrate the group. What follows could be described as a road movie, with predictabilities like infatuations and double-crosses, but it's done in such a way that makes looking away from the screen completely out of the question.

I should be getting tired of these martial arts lollapawuxias, but I'm not. The camerawork continues to amaze (and distract from the melodramatic acting, thankfully) while the inventive choreography of the fight scenes is taken to new heights --- often literally, in the case of the skirmish in the jewel-green bamboo forest. And when it actually changes seasons during the final showdown, you want to scoff but somehow you just can't.

I've had issues with Zhang Ziyi ever since her breakout role as Jen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The camera obviously adores her, but she's always seemed impenetrable. Her flawless, doll-like features haven't yet expressed the kind of believable emotion that is required when one's face is 10 feet tall and the only thing visible in a darkened room. Finally, on his third try (after The Road Home and Hero), Yimou is able to geppetto her into a real woman. Her Mei is all flesh-and-blood human, with a vulnerability and eroticism that can only come with experience.

It's hard not to compare Daggers to Hero, Yimou's previous film. Both are profoundly gorgeous, technical marvels, but Hero conveyed a stirring passion that Daggers strangely lacks. Maybe that was because it was difficult to comprehend who ultimately cared about what and why, in light of the fact that everyone had something to hide.

So while my eyes and brain loved Daggers, it failed to engage my heart. And considering what an easily manipulated, lovestruck fool I am, that is damn near impossible.

House of Flying Daggers (PG-13), starring Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro; directed by Zhang Yimou. Little Theatres


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