Dir: Zhang Yimou. China. 2002. 98 mins.

One of the most eagerly awaited films in Asian film history - and already a box office blockbuster in China and Hong Kong - Zhang Yimou's Hero is an intoxicatingly beautiful, structurally enigmatic and decidedly brief epic which will struggle to escape comparisons with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the west not to mention the arthouses where its chief audience will lie.

Miramax Films, which early on paid a princely chunk of the $31m budget for rights in North America, Latin America, the UK, Australia, Africa and Italy, will work hard to persuade audiences that Hero is in fact a martial arts picture rather than a film by Zhang Yimou, but kids looking for another emotional thrill-ride along Crouching Tiger lines will be baffled its cold, stately storytelling and stark lack of sentiment.

Chinese-speaking territories on the other hand are another proposition, as the results since its mid-December opening have proved. Audiences in the region are accustomed to this classically minimalist type of film-making and are responding to its inventive re-imagining of Chinese history and all-star cast. What's more, the Chinese government has fully endorsed the film which has already drawn criticism for its possibly propagandist content. It was submitted for the foreign-language film Oscar category over acclaimed titles by Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige and box office failure was not an option. Sure enough, its first day gross of $1.45m in China shattered previous records.

The film is set 2,000 years ago when China was divided into seven warring kingdoms, the greatest of which was Qin. The king of Qin (Chen Daoming) was obsessed with conquering the other six countries and becoming its first emperor and was subject to numerous assassination attempts, so much so that he wore armour at all times and isolated himself in his palace.

The drama begins with the arrival of a low-ranking county sheriff Nameless (Jet Li) at the palace of Qin, claiming to have killed the three legendary assassins Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky. He is welcomed into the presence of the king - his deeds entitle him to sit within ten paces - and asked to relate the story of the slayings.

Nameless tells how he overcame Sky and then travelled to a calligraphy school in the kingdom of Zhou where lovers Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) were hiding out. There, having fended off a Qin army attack alongside Flying Snow, he sews seeds of jealousy in Broken Sword by claiming that Sky was in love with Flying Snow; Broken Sword then sleeps with his protégé Moon (Zhang Ziyi, in a secondary role here) as retaliation and Flying Snow kills him. She proceeds to kill Moon in combat the next day and is then defeated by Nameless.

The king listens patiently but doubts the validity of the story, subsequently suggesting his own version of events in which Nameless is in cahoots with the assassins and Flying Snow sacrifices herself in order for Nameless to gain access to the king.

But Nameless denies this and instead comes clean with the real version of events in which Broken Sword objects to the killing of the king on the grounds that he will be able to unify the warring kingdoms (bringing together "all under heaven") and stop the suffering of the people. Broken Sword's conviction that the king live is finally adopted by Nameless who spares the king's life and in doing so facilitates the unification of the country.

Controversy has arisen over the implication in the film that not only does the "all under heaven" motif sanction mainland China's policy of owning Taiwan and Tibet, but that the ruthless tactics of the king are excusable if the end justifies the means.

Aside from political interpretations, the technical elements in the film are top-drawer. Expert cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the design team and Zhang have created gorgeous different colour palettes for each version of the story. The first is told in luscious reds, the second in blue, the third in white (with flashbacks in green). Doyle's work is breathtaking as is the fight choreography by Tony Ching Siu Tung, which encompasses combat on a lake, on tree-tops, in the rain and in the royal palace (shot on location at Beijing's forbidden city) as well as the wondrous double-handed defeat of the Qin army's million arrows by Jet Li and Maggie Cheung. From the elegant action setpieces to the lingering close-ups of Maggie Cheung's mournful beauty, the film's composition is achingly poetic and as close to visual art as cinema can get.

But for all the eye-dropping spectacle on show in Hero, what non-Asian audiences will miss is that western brand of romance which Ang Lee so beautifully injected into the martial arts genre in Crouching Tiger. In fact Crouching Tiger's composer Tan Dun provides another dreamy music score here - again featuring Itzhak Perlman violin solos - which will remind many viewers of Ang Lee's film.

Not that Zhang is a stranger to pulling the heartstrings as some of his recent pictures - Happy Times and The Road Home especially - have shown. But in Hero, he opts against inter-character relationships in favour of action and aesthetics. In fact in the final 98 minute cut, there is little room for much else, a shame given Zhang's proven skills at capturing small, intimate moments which tell the personal stories that illumine the historical.

Prod cos: Zhang Yimou Studio, Edko Films, Elite Group Enterprises Inc in collaboration with China Film Co-Production Corporation, Sil-Metropole Organisation Ltd & Beijing New Picture Film Co Ltd.
US dist: Miramax Films.
Int'l sales (excluding Asia): Focus Features.
Exec prods: Dou Shou Fang, Zhang Wei Pin.
Prods: Bill Kong, Zhang Yimou.
Scr: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou.
DoP: Christopher Doyle.
Prod des: Huo Ting Xiao, Yi Zhen Zhou.
Ed: Zhan Ru, Angie Lam.
Mus: Tan Dun.
Main cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Daoming, Donnie Yen