Before you make a sincere attempt to understand this title, you're zipped off into the Far East, at a time when China was standing at the dawn of a new age, far before any foreign hand deigned to defy the might of her empire. The plot centers around a mystic sword and its master, Li Mu Bai, who has given up his "warrior ethic" in an attempt to live the rest of his life as a peaceful man. Shortly after gifting the prestigious weapon to his friend, it's immediately stolen and the robbery forces Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to face old enemies and settle scores while trying to preserve their way of life.
Simultaneously, a young and headstrong aristocrat named Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) searches for her true self and lives out a dangerous alter ego as the disciple of a famous warrior named Jade Fox. Jen's greatest weakness is her inability to rationalize, and she is looked upon as somewhat of a loose cannon by her family and by Li Mu Bai, who wishes to train her in true Wudan code. Jen's lover, a mysterious armed bandit Lo, also plays a significant role in the film and tries to dissuade her from accepting her own aristocratic roots.
At first glance, the plot is a tangled mass of occurrences and events; however, closer review suggests that there is a planned method to the mayhem. Jen's name is reminiscent of the word "dragon" in Chinese and Lo symbolizes the "tiger" to an extent. The title of the film runs parallel to a Chinese saying which suggests that nothing should be underestimated in this world, and no one is what they seem.
The direction takes on a novel feel in this movie and touches upon human emotions like fear and sorrow, which don't often feature in martial arts films. Another brilliantly engineered device arises in the differences perceived between Li Mu Bai, Shu Lien, Lo and Jen as opposing ends of a changing society.
Fight choreography has been taken to new and fascinating levels here, and the director has not shied away from detailed stunt shots. Most of the characters dance atop rooftops, prance over rivers and leap into the air at any given moment in time in an effort to defy gravity. The cinematography is also spectacular and the soundtrack forms a smooth undertone to the seductive screenplay.
Martial arts films have always been an intrinsic part of Eastern culture, and Ang Lee has definitely done the industry proud by bringing a classic tale of strength and courage to Western audiences.This article was first published on 13 Mar 2001.