Sony Pictures Classics has acquired Takeshi Kitano's gangster picture Brother for distribution in the US and Canada, producer Jeremy Thomas has confirmed.

The $10m production is seen as the cult Japanese auteur's potentially most commercial outing to date and marks his first film to be shot in America. The story, which is told principally in the English-language with some Japanese, continues Kitano's hallmark investigations into the criminal life that he explored to award-winning effect in films such as Hana-Bi, Sonatine, Violent Cop, Boiling Point and last year's Kikujiru (another SPC domestic release).

"It's got Kitano's pure style but in a LA setting," Thomas said.

Sony has unveiled the deal in the production's fourth week of a seven-week sequential shoot in Los Angeles. The project also had a two-week shoot in Japan last year.

Kitano, who acts under the name "Beat" Takeshi, plays the lead role of Yamamoto, a Yakuza gangster's bodyguard who flees from Japan to Los Angeles after losing a war with a rival family. Once in the US, he discovers that his younger brother is involved in drug dealing with black gang members. The two brothers join forces in a fight with several gangs for control of the LA drug trade.

Omar Epps plays the leader of the Los Angeles gang that enlists Yamamoto's help. Co-starring in Brother are Tatyana Ali , Claude Maki and Masayo Kato, with a special appearance by Tetsuya Watari, star of more than a hundred Japanese films including the Burai series and the 1997 feature Yukai.

The film, which will have first commercial release in Japan before the end of the year, may have its festival premiere at either Venice (where. Hani-Bi won the Golden Lion in 1997).or Toronto this September. SPC has slated a mid-2001 release in North America.

Thomas' London-based HanWay Films is handling international sales on the picture, while Kitano's company, Office Kitano, is selling South-East Asian rights. Other international distributors already on board include FilmFour in the UK; Bac in France; Advanced in Germany; New World in Spain; and Odeon for Greece and Cyprus.

Masayuki Mori and Takio Yoshida are also producing the project, which is a joint venture between Thomas' production outfit Recorded Picture Co and Office Kitano.