Set in a mythical China of the early 19th century, a romantic epic is spun about the theft of an ancient sword known as Green Destiny. The owner, renowned warrior Li Mui Bai, and female fighter, Yu Shu Lien, discover the culprit is a young aristocrat, Jen
Having proven himself a black belt of versatility with unsung US Civil War drama Ride With The Devil, Ang Lee's venture into the world of martial arts may prove the diminutive Taiwanese director has no limitations whatsoever.
With kung fu so gloriously choreographed, shot and edited that it literally has you gasping for breath, an epic canvas of stunning Chinese scenery and a set of beautifully measured characters trading genuine emotions, it's The Matrix spliced with David Lean, seasoned with the late '70s Oriental TV series, The Water Margin. Oh, and it's in Chinese.
Events begin with a tease - ten minutes of poised dialogue, elegantly shot and pristinely acted, building up the undercurrent of unrequited passion between Li and Yu. All very formal and cunningly misleading. Seemingly from nowhere, the movie then explodes into action, as a masked thief steals Li's famous sword and Yu gives chase across the rooftops of Beijing in an extraordinary display of high flying wire-work, edited to a surging staccato drumbeat.
So dazzling is its visual craft and breathless momentum, you have to swallow the urge to cheer out loud. Not since Jurassic Park has filmmaking joyously thundered through the boundaries of its own medium. And there's not a pixel in sight.
Over the proceeding two-hour span, Lee and legendary martial arts co-ordinator Yuen Wo Ping offer up increasingly astounding fight sequences, involving everything from the most elaborate bar room brawl in history, to a dazzling tree-top duel allowig the camera to dip and bend woozily with the flexing branches. The kung fu on show grants its masters a mystical weightlessness, and its director crafts it all like volcanic ballet, as graceful as it is brutal.
It is still an Ang Lee joint, though, and he gives his characters credence, making their romantic entanglements as real as their chopsocky is fantastical, and injecting a sly humour. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh move seamlessly between feats of physical prowess and nuances of emotion. However, the fire at the heart of the movie is the stunning Ziyi. Ostensibly this is Jen's rites-of-passage, and as she rejects an arranged marriage, driven by an insatiable desire for self-expression, Ziyi fills her with furious, exciting fervour.
This is the story of true female empowerment, where the ladies revel in kick-arse glory and the men opt for calm consideration. On just about every level, it needs to be seen to be believed.
The story veers toward folklore guff and is at times pretty incomprehensible. No matter. Whatever your preconceptions on yawny, subtitled, arthousey movies, we guarantee you have never seen anything like this before.