(12/04/07) – Yimou Zhang has been well known on the international film circuit since his directorial debut Red Sorghum (1987) and through a series of strong, dramatic films typified by their exacting cinematography (Zhang’s role as a cinematographer also saw him lens some of China’s most prestigious pictures). However it was with Hero (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) that his reputation was joined with box-office, breaking out of independent cinemas to be shown in multiplexes the world over – a hard feat to accomplish especially in subtitle-shy English speaking markets. Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) marks, if you will, the third part of his martial arthouse trilogy – a sumptuous epic replete with dazzling displays of breathtaking martial artistry.

Set in the Tang Dynasty (10th Century) Curse of the Golden Flower concerns the complex web of intrigue surrounding the Emperor and the Empress. Both maintain an air of decorum when going about their daily court duties but underneath the surface each is planning to overthrow the other, he by slow poison, her by a coup d’etat. The veil of silence that shrouds the imperial palace for fear of deadly reprisal has courtesans, servants and soldiers balancing sides in order to maintain their heads. With the Chong Yang Festival approaching the die are cast and even crown princes need to choose their sides carefully.

Curse of the Golden Flower is arguably one of the most ravishing films of recent times. Set in a time of aristocratic opulence the screen drips with colourful excess; hundreds of choreographed servants perform their exacting tasks in perfect symmetry as rainbow light saturates the golden corridors. Outside, an immense courtyard is strewn with millions of chrysanthemum flowers, burning yellow in the sunlight.

The sheer scale of the set design, the quality of the artistry and the searing colour of the production demand a cinema showing – it’s where epics are intended to be shown. Nor does Curse of the Golden Flower skimp on spectacular scenes of fighting – all once again choreographed by the inimitable Ching Sui-Tung. What marks these scenes out is that they are all fully integrated into the plot and highly distinctive, ranging from simple one-on-one sparring to full-scale battles with thousands of clashing combatants.

One remarkable scene shows a stealthy ambush by black-clad assassins abseiling from the mountaintops before their discovery leads to a stunning skirmish where the combatants are plucked out of the sky like pheasants. While these scenes are exhilarating, heart-stopping examples of their art they nonetheless provide the backdrop of the main story, fleshing out events that affect the palace but are outside of it – death is a business best kept away from home.

Zhang has in many ways provided a synthesis of his previous films – the crowd pleasing spectacle of Hero with the character tragedy and interaction of Ju Dou (1990). At the heart of the film are the Emperor and the Empress, scheming melodramatic plots to outwit each other like a deadly game of chess. What makes these plots so dreadful is that each is aware of the other’s plans but still has to maintain a public pose of regal harmony. Returning to Zhang after a ten year break, the incomparable Gong Li shines as the Empress, a complex and melodramatic role that shows her skills far beyond being the only reason to see Miami Vice, being wasted in Hannibal Rising and surviving the tolerable Memoirs of a Geisha. Similarly the recently camera-shy Chow Yun-Fat finally has the chance to excel as a truly evil Emperor in what must be the only film role in which he doesn’t get to smile once.

A lavish, intriguing and exciting blend of drama and action Curse of the Golden Flower manages to stimulate both as art and entertainment.

Curse of the Golden Flower is released in the UK tomorrow, 13 April.