Having directed both 'Hero' and 'House of Flying Daggers', audiences won't be surprised to find that Zhang Yimou's new film is armed with as much lavish bloodshed and visually absorbing action sequences as his previous credits suggest.

'Curse of the Golden Flower' however is as reliant on highly-charged drama to propel its tagging as an action movie as it is its eye-catching choreography.

Billed as a 'Gladiator'-style epic, the film's plot concerns itself with the Imperial Family of the Later Tang Dynasty, more than 1,000 years ago, and the dysfunction lying beneath the perceived opulence and glamour which seep from palace walls.

On the eve of the Chong Yang Festival, where golden flowers line the exterior of the palace, the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) has unexpectedly returned with his second son, Prince Jai (Chou). Perceived joys of a family reunion are however strangled by the chilled relations between the Emperor and the ailing Empress (Gong).

Her illicit relationship with her stepson, the Crown Prince Wan (Liu), has left him trapped, guilt-ridden and eager to escape with his secret lover while the Empress herself is left nursing a breaking heart along with a mysterious, long-term illness.

As the plot thickens, it transpires that the Emperor has more than a hand in her ill-health as the Empress sets in motion a series of ominous events that will culminate in a planned coup d'état.

It is not until this second half of the film that director Zhang lets himself go and begins to demonstrate his considerable chops as an action director in the typical sense of the word. Where 'Curse of the Golden Flower' succeeds over the limp 'House of Flying Daggers' however is that the best action exists within the movie's gripping dramatic incidents.

Zhang's film plays out with all the tension and suspense of a great Greek tragedy, and it's in this history of storytelling where 'Curse of the Golden Flower' is closely aligned. The Oedipus element is apparent throughout, as is the underlying sense of tragedy in waiting. Each character too is as flawed as they are victimised and the blurring of boundaries as to who is the victim and who is the aggressor helps heighten the film's machinations amid its many plot twists.

As the hard-nosed Emperor, the great Chow Yun-Fat shows immense subtlety in filling his character with just the right amount of humanity to place question marks over his villainous tendencies.

Mention too should go to film's startling visual beauty, buoyed by the sort of lavish set designs and plentiful use of colour we've come to expect from Chinese cinema. It makes for a movie which is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the intellect.

In all, 'Curse of the Golden Flower' lends the action film genre considerable kudos. Zhang has created a Multiplex-friendly feast as far removed from the Hollywood template of big, dumb and stupid as might be possible. That in itself is reason enough to stump up the ticket price. Recommended.

Steve Cummins