Master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) decides to give up his antique sword as a gift, but when it is stolen, events get complicated with his old friend (and secret love) Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) becoming involved, and it looks like his arch-enemy Jade Fox is behind the trouble. However, Jade Fox has an apprentice, someone even more skilled than she is – who could this newcomer be?
This straight-faced, romantic epic was scripted by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung and was popular with with people who wouldn't normally watch martial arts adventures, although some martial arts fans became restless in between the action sequences. Director Ang Lee made the movie with Western as well as Eastern audiences in mind, and was rewarded with a clutch of Oscars for his trouble.
A burden of responsibility hangs heavily over the characters. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien can't admit their love for each other due to a pledge made years before, and have to lead lives of violence to protect the good. Governor's daughter Jen (Ziyi Zhang) is the victim of an arranged marriage she wants nothing to do with, but has to respect tradition even as she surreptiously breaks the rules and flirts with evil.
After a while, the story grows into a battle for the soul of Jade Fox's apprentice as our heroes try to prevent her from joining the dark side. Along the way there are plenty of exhilarating action sequences expertly choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, taking in rooftop chases, swordfights, pursuits on horseback, a duel which features the combatants balancing on the tops of slender bamboo trees, and generally a lot of people being beaten up (see the extravagant variation on the bar room brawl).
The acting is understated as a counterpoint to the action, which adds to the air of doomed love, but the plotlines are riddled with clichés such as the desert romance where Jen naturally falls for her roguish captor or Li Mu Bai's revenge for the murder of his master. On the other hand, these familiar elements give a feeling of watching a poetic fable, and the classy production offers up a martials arts movie with the emphasis on "art". Music by Tan Dun.
Taiwanese director who can handle emotional drama as effectively as action. The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman secured him international attention, and Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility and 1970s-set The Ice Storm were also well received. Epic western Ride with the Devil was a disappointment, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars, including best foreign language film, and led him to direct blockbuster Hulk. "Gay cowboy" yarn Brokeback Mountain proved there was a large market for gay films among straight audiences as well as homosexual, Lust, Caution pushed sexual barriers in the Chinese market, and he won his Oscar for the adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable Life of Pi.