Dir: Ann Hu. China-US.2005. 89mins.

Set against the backdropof the late 1940s Chinese Revolution, Beauty Remains is a grand,romantic saga where passion trumps politics and the lives of three littlepeople amount to more than a hill of beans. A handsomely mounted production, itelegantly balances the operatic and the cerebral in a very satisfyingdramatically charged yarn.

In China the film did wellafter a mid-February rollout, taking more than $2m. Beyond that it has decidedinternational appeal on the arthouse circuit, with crossover potential in ahandful of sophisticated markets that hanker for upscale and exotic fare in thetradition of Dr Zhivago. Chief selling points should be its strong craftand performance values, with festival play this autumn a certainty. SonyPictures Classics are reported to be circling for a US deal.

Directed by Ann Hu (ShadowMagic; not to be confused with Ann Hui of As Time Goes By), thefocus is on Fei (Zhou Xun), a girl approaching womanhood in the Northern Cityof Qingdao. The illegitimate child of a wealthy man and his maid, she isbrought back into the family upon his death. Told by her half-sister Ying(Vivian Wu) that this was his dying request, she eventually learns that thewill stipulates that her sibling only inherits the estate upon her return.

It also becomes clear thatYing plans to liquidate everything in advance of the Communist arrival and usethe money to start a new life with her lover Huang (Wang Zhi Wen) abroad.

The script, by AmericansBeth Schachter and Michael Eldridge and China's Wang Bin, deftly maintains anambiguity about the extent of Ying's mercenary streak. There's an obvious bondof affection between the two women but Fei's vulnerability and need for familyis not averse to employing blackmail and seduction to satisfy the void thatexisted in her personal life.

Huang, too, emerges assomeone with a cultivated opportunism and the trio together comprise alandlocked Ship of Fools as the sound of combat and social change growsprogressively louder on the soundtrack.

While unquestionably aculturally Chinese story, the film employs a significant number of Americans inkey craft areas including cinematographer Scott Kevan and designer Carol Wells.However, there's little indication that Beauty Remains has beenwesternised or homogenised, with the director embracing such visual stylists asZhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wei as well as Visconti and Bertolucci. Kevan opts fordiffused imagery that aptly suggests a bygone era and a tale fitfully recordedin memory. Plot details are filled in via narration by the character of Fei butthe emotional struggles require no additional magnification.

The three principleperformers devour meaty, nuanced roles with aplomb. Zhou particularly appearsprimed for wider recognition as a result of this role and Hu rises severalnotches in both her craft and storytelling from her debut effort.

One cannot help but feel thetug between the ironic and sincere that the title Beauty Remainsimplies. The specificity of the setting instils a potent dramatic context butultimately the universality of the emotional terrain is so rich and texturedthat borders blur and a vibrant heart survives that should provide thisinternational co-production with ample global access.

Production companies
Emerging Pictures
Media Asia Group
China Film Group
Shanghai Film Group

International sales
c/o Emerging Pictures

Ira Deutchman
Ann Hu
Han San Ping
Ren Zhong Lun

Beth Schachter
Michael Eldridge
Wang Bin

Scott Kevan

Production design
Carol Wells

Sara Thorson

Sasha Gordon

Main cast
Zhou Xun
Vivian Wu
Wang Zhi Wen
Lisa Lu