Dir: Nagisa Oshima. Japan. 2000. 100 mins.

Prod cos: Shochiku. Co-prods: Kadokawa Shoten, Imagica, BS Asahi, Eisei Gekijo, BAC, Le Studio Canal Plus, Recorded Picture Company. Int'l Sales: Le Studio Canal Plus (00 33 1 44 43 98 00). Exec prods: Oshima Productions, Eiko Oshima, Shigehiro Nakagawa, Kazuo Shimizu. Scr: Oshima, based on novellas by Ryotaro Shiba. Dop: Toyomichi Kurita. Prod des: Yoshinobu Nishioka. Ed: Tomoyo Oshima. Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto. Main cast: Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano), Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda, Tadanobu Asano, Koji Matoba, Tomorowo Taguchi.

Oshima's first film since Max Mon Amour (1986) will be a tough sell internationally despite the high expectations riding on its director's name. It has been marketed in Japan on the strength of its locally celebrated cast, the sex appeal of its young star, and its stylistic elegance: the design and Kurita's cinematography, which creates limpid imagery from a severely muted palette, are exquisite.

Abroad, however, Taboo is likely to be perceived primarily as a somewhat airless and esoteric meditation on male beauty, a subject that Oshima might have more accessibly realised in his aborted project about the encounter between the Japanese movie star Sesshu Hayakawa and his Hollywood counterpart Rudolph Valentino. The homoerotic theme, particularly the ever-topical issue of gay men in the military, may provide a slender marketing hook, while the names of Kitano and Oshima will assure critical attention. But the title promises a sexual provocativeness which the film signally fails to deliver and reviews are unlikely to be enthusiastic enough to ease it into the arthouses which ought to have been its natural habitat.

Set in 1865, at the end of the samurai era and the disintegration of its rigid code of honour (the historical background is thinly indicated), the story begins as the Shinsengumi militia embarks on an aggressive recruiting campaign. Only two candidates pass the test: Tashiro (Asano), a samurai of humble origins and Kano (Matsuda), a very young man from a wealthy family whose motives in joining up are uncertain.

Kano is possessed of a disturbing epicene beauty, which instantly throws all the other warriors into a heightened state of fascination and repressed desire. After successfully undergoing a brutal initiation rite, he receives a declaration of love from Tashiro, which he brusquely rebuffs. For a while he remains content to bask in the heat of unrequited passion before submitting to another warrior. However rumours continue to whirl around him until his captain (Kitano) resolves to contain them once and for all.

Kano, who has stated that he has never slept with a woman, is to be taken to a geisha house - triggering speculation over exactly who should fund this particular stage of his military training - but he merely misinterprets it as yet another homosexual overture from the unlucky fellow charged with this mission and the outing turns into a fiasco.

These initial episodes are presented pithily and with a welcome pinch of dry humour but the narrative begins to turn in ever-diminishing circles as the political purpose of the soldiers is engulfed by their intensifying erotic obsession. Anarchy threatens as two members of a rival faction infiltrate the barracks and Kano's lover is murdered. He is commanded to kill Tashiro - the prime suspect - in a dreamlike confrontation which takes the film into the realms of metaphor.

Kitano, who also narrates the story, provides an anchor for the film's feverish speculations, confirming himself as a potent screen presence (which Oshima was the first to harness in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence). But the all-important relationship between Kano and Tashiro remains shadowy, as do the director's intended connections between death and sexual desire, a theme he has explored more forcefully in his best work.