Given the moral and political undertones, the emotional complexity and the veiled sensuality of Chen Kaige's best works ("Yellow Earth," "Farewell My Concubine"), the Chinese director's choice of "Killing Me Softly" for his English-language debut represents a perplexing pairing of filmmaker and material.

Given the moral and political undertones, the emotional complexity and the veiled sensuality of Chen Kaige’s best works (“Yellow Earth,” “Farewell My Concubine”), the Chinese director’s choice of “Killing Me Softly” for his English-language debut represents a perplexing pairing of filmmaker and material. A turgid erotic thriller that plays like Zalman King-meets-vintage Brian De Palma without the latter’s wit or style, this lamely scripted effort gets sunk by lifeless dialogue and two uncharismatic leads, who look hot naked but generate zero sparks.

Originally slated for North American release last fall but pushed back repeatedly to a still-uncertain date by MGM, this upscale trash appears headed swiftly down the video/DVD chute. Reportedly stuck for a long period in post-production hell after rumored problems with Chen’s original cut, the film was given a wide release March 15 in Italy, the second territory to date to brave the marketplace following the pic’s world preem in Japan last month.

Adapted by Kara Lindstrom from the steamy potboiler by Nicci French (the combined pseudonym of husband-and-wife journalist team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French), the London-set film trades the original British femme protagonist for American Web designer Alice (Heather Graham), an Indiana flatlander who falls hard for rugged mountaineer Adam (Joseph Fiennes).

Alice and Adam first lock eyes at a traffic light, and within hours are locking thighs in some stripped and sweaty action. Feted in the media as a hero for a daring high-altitude rescue, Adam brings the same passion and intensity to the relationship that he does to mountain climbing, prompting Alice to ditch her dullish lover (Jason Hughes) and move in with the relative stranger. Ignoring the ominous silent phone calls and unsigned warning letters, Alice agrees to marry Adam in an unintentionally amusing scene where he intervenes during an attempted mugging, viciously beating the man to a pulp and then proposing to her with a blood-smeared kiss.

The couple’s sexual antics take a turn toward mild S&M power games when Adam forces Alice to hike alone cross-country on their wedding night to an isolated cottage. There, he slings her up in a cloth noose for some strangulation-copulation fun, demanding her total submission.

Coming down off her carnal cloud back in London, Alice starts to realize how little she knows about her controlling husband aside from the fact that his previous fiancee died in a mountain climbing accident in which he was involved. Her sense of alarm grows when she meets a woman claiming to have been raped by Adam. She then finds letters from another of his former lovers, who later disappeared and was never found.

More mystery surrounds Adam’s beautiful sister, Deborah (Natascha McElhone), who shows a suspiciously circumspect manner from her first scene. While running scared from her husband, Alice makes the mistake of turning to Deborah for help.

Recounted in sporadic voiceover by Alice as she tells all to an ineffectual cop (Ian Hart), the story borders frequently on the ludicrous. However, it is given its own weird kind of logic through the guileless performance of Graham, who plays Alice as such a trusting dolt that her inability to smell danger until so far into the scenario seems almost feasible.

While the actress has functioned well enough in comedies such as “Austin Powers” and is appealing in flaky roles like Rollergirl in “Boogie Nights” or the opportunistic ingenue in “Bowfinger,” Graham is far too inexpressive and lacking in emotional intensity to convince as a woman swept up in a vortex of violent passion. The idea of her clueless Alice designing CD-ROMs is also something of a stretch.

Often the most wooden performer on the block, Fiennes seems almost dynamic by comparison, though he overplays the sinister card and the shortage of chemistry between him and Graham undermines all their strenuous sexual tussles. Other cast members don’t stand a chance against the blundering script: The normally fine McElhone is all smoldering looks and obvious hidden agendas, while most of Hart’s role seems to have been mislaid on the cutting-room floor.

Chen’s direction generally is classier than the vapid material warrants, but his first experience with English-speaking actors reveals an uncertain hand with the cast. Lenser Michael Coulter effectively covers much of the action from voyeuristic viewpoints, his prowling camera observing from behind doorways and windows. Patrick Doyle’s unsubtle and unrelenting suspense score works overtime to pump up the action, even before the film’s thriller element has been introduced.

Killing Me Softly

Production

An MGM release (in North America) of an MGM/Montecito Picture Co.presentation of a Montecito Picture Co. production. (International sales: Myriad Pictures, L.A.) Produced by Lynda Myles, Joe Medjuck, Michael Chinich. Executive producers, Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, Daniel Goldberg. Directed by Chen Kaige. Screenplay, Kara Lindstrom, based on the novel by Nicci French.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Michael Coulter; editor, Jon Gregory; music, Patrick Doyle; production designer, Gemma Jackson; art director, Rod McLean; set decorator, Trisha Edwards; costume designer, Phoebe De Gaye; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Mark Holding; line producer, Donna Grey; associate producer, Anna Chi; assistant director, Cliff Lansing; casting, Susie Figgis. Reviewed at Quirinetta Cinema, Rome, March 15, 2002. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Alice - Heather Graham Adam Tallis - Joseph Fiennes Deborah Tallis - Natascha McElhone Klaus - Ulrich Thomsen Daniel - Ian Hart Jake - Jason Hughes Lucy - Helen Grace

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