Setting a new standard for opulence in martial-arts films, Hero also marks director Zhang Yimou's first attempt to work in the genre. With a serious dramatic turn by Jet Li, the film may confound die-hard action fans. Hero's overly complex storyline and spare, emotionally remote characters may disappoint those art-house audiences who fell for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well.

Zhang, who also co-wrote and produced, sets his story in the Qin dynasty, roughly 200 B.C. In a vast imperial hall, a character known only as Nameless (Jet Li) is given a private audience with the Qin king (Chen Dao Ming). Because he has been ruthless in attacking neighboring states, the king has been a target of assassins. Nameless shows the king weapons belonging to three dangerous rebels--proof that he killed them.

Nameless describes how he defeated each assassin. He fought Sky (Donnie Yen) in a rainy teahouse courtyard. Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) was studying calligraphy in a school in the province of Zhao. When Nameless helped Broken Sword's lover Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) fight off an attack on the school, he inadvertently became a part of the feud between the two assassins.

Broken Sword's immersion into calligraphy has changed his feelings about fighting. The jealous Flying Snow also blames the influence of his servant Moon (Zhang Ziyi). She tries to persuade Nameless to join a plot against the Qin king. But as he explains to the king, Nameless had his own reasons for hunting down the assassins. The king, who survived an attack by Broken Sword and Flying Snow three years earlier, knows more than Nameless expects. Ultimately, Nameless must decide between his own feelings and the fate of a future China.

By using shifting time frames and flashbacks within flashbacks, Zhang Yimou makes Hero extremely hard to follow. The film's cryptic debates about politics from 2,000 years ago aren't much help. Zhang's decision to assign colors to the film's dominant themes--red for passion, green for memory, etc.--may further confuse viewers. On the other hand, cinematographer Christopher Doyle uses Zhang's palette to capture some extraordinary images. And action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung has constructed fight scenes of uncommon grace and agility. They are so talented that it may be easier to remember the flow of red costumes against yellow leaves and a blue sky during a pivotal sword fight than what the fight actually signifies.

Jet Li gives a restrained, moody performance that is in keeping with his character, while Zhang Ziyi tends to overplay her largely superfluous part. The real discovery here is Tony Leung Chiu-wai, a marvelously complex actor who is one of the mainstays of Hong Kong cinema. Leung and Maggie Cheung, who appeared together in In the Mood for Love, seem to act in shorthand with each other, condensing years of desire and disappointment into small but telling gestures. Their work has an emotional weight that much of Hero lacks.

-Daniel Eagan