By EWAN McDONALD
(Herald rating: * * * * * )
You'll get a kick out of this movie. Lots of em, because apart from ancient Chinese themes of myth, romance, fate, honour, magic and poetry, director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility) raids modern cinema for martial arts sequences that kapow the bejesus out of anything you've seen before.
It is set in the early 19th century. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat, Anna and the King) agonises over his violent past so hands his sword to his lover, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, Tomorrow Never Dies) for safekeeping.
When the sword is stolen, Yu Shu pursues the female thief through the village. Suddenly the two women fly rooftop-to-rooftop, fighting, in one of the most breathtaking scenes you'll see. They are disciples of an ancient art that has elevated them to this level of combat.
Yu Shu understands the art, so does Li. But the thief, Jade Fox, knows only the moves. She cannot comprehend the higher concepts. She has a deeper secret, too.
Jade Fox' pupil is Jen (Zhang Zi Yi), an aristocrat with a porcelain exterior and the heart of a fighter.
As she prepares to marry for money Jen dreams of when she was a lonely warrior who fell in love with the pirate Lo (Chen Chang).
The film is filled with hidden or mistaken identities, crafty female villains who use poison on their enemies, interrupted marriages and unrequited love.
It also has lots of superbly choreographed fighting (you gotta love the scene where Jen trashes a Chinese restaurant). In fact, the fight scenes wear a bit thin and it wouldn't hurt if it were shorter. But the landscapes are gorgeous, the philosophy intriguing, the tale sweeping and the characters so rich you won't mind. Yes, it is subtitled.
Running time: 119 mins