The extravagant visual beauty of Hero is, in a way, its own reward. Zhang Yimou's martial-arts epic, set at the dawn of the Qin dynasty, when China was a land of warring kingdoms, is as new a genre for the director of ''Raise the Red Lantern'' as it was four years ago when Ang Lee unfurled ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,'' his swords-and-wirework masterpiece. And you can be sure Lee's success inspired Zhang: I'll see your fight-dance on bamboo trees, this opulent production (a 2003 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film) seems to taunt, and I'll raise you by slicing water drops right before your eyes.
I wish ''Hero'''s emotional heat rose more intensely -- more recklessly. There's something grand but distant and almost fetishistic about the operatic solemnity with which Zhang approaches the Rashomonic story of assassins attempting to kill a king, and even the love story between a sword-fighting calligrapher (''In the Mood for Love'''s Tony Leung) and his sweetheart (Leung's ''Love'' costar Maggie Cheung) is girdled with reserve. Still, the eye swoons. The cast is a parade of action stars in full charisma, led by Jet Li in the title role and graced, as every martial-arts epic might as well be, by ''Crouching Tiger'''s own Zhang Ziyi. The action choreography (by Tony Ching) is new-wave elegant, with bodies sometimes suspended in mid-motion with a bravado bordering on obsessive. And when the real hero of the picture, ''In the Mood for Love'''s cinematographer Christopher Doyle, devises imagery of such color- coded gorgeousness, it's easy to become bewitched by sheer movie grandeur.