Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is the most skilled martial artist in the region yet after years of training and fighting he's ready to give it all up to lead a new peaceful life. Only he's got two more challenges ahead of him: love and a young mysterious thief with martial arts skills like he's never seen. Before he can slip into retirement he attempts to make a deal with the young thief: He'll become her master and polish her martial arts if she'll turn from her evil ways.
Unlike most martial arts films this one is an equal-opportunity flick - with the two female co-stars Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi doing the bulk of the karate chopping. Their scenes are one of the many highlights throughout this little gem which is told in the form of an ancient fantasy. Fat's presence dominates the screen with his portrayal of a wise and highly skilled martial artist who can deliver deadly damage to a foe with a single finger jab. Ziyi's also delivers an impeccable performance of a character who can be innocent at first glance but when provoked can unleash a flurry of kicks jabs and tumbling acrobatics.
Ang Lee (The Ice Storm Eat Drink Man Woman) adds a very different film to his impressive repertoire. Here he plays on his childhood fantasies in Taiwan to create world of ancient martial artists who fly through the air during their many fighting sequences. As corny as it may seem Lee's character's supernatural abilities give these sequences an air of elegance to the martial arts. And he's managed to skillfully blend the special effects with a romantic subplot in China's beautifully spacious landscapes of deserts and lush forests.