Director Ang Lee returns to China for the first time since 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman, but this time he’s surprised everyone. Though this film has the same concern for traditions and the delicate interplay of subtle emotions that have marked all his films, it’s also a kick-ass kung fu sockfest!
Based on the novel Wu Hu Zang Long by Du Lu Wang, it tells a story from old China about a famed fighter of the Wudan school named Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) who is tired of bloodshed and wants to retire. He asks his old friend, security expert Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver his wonderful sword Green Destiny to a friend in Pekin, Sir Te (Sihung Lung) — but his visit’s real purpose is to see Yu Shu Lien again, as the two warriors have carried a torch for each other for decades. They agree to meet again in Pekin, after Li carries out one last mission: taking vengeance on Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Cheng), who killed his master and stole a valued kung fu instruction manual ten years before.
In Pekin, Yu befriends the visiting daughter of Governor Yu (Fazeng Li), innocent young Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang). That night, someone steals the Green Destiny, escaping after a fierce battle with Yu. All feel certain this is the work of Jade Fox, but complications set in when a witness spies the thief fleeing into the house of Governor Yu. Li shows up and helps to flush out the thief — which turns out to be Jen! Jade Fox has been hiding out all these years as the girl’s maid, and together the pair have plundered the Wudan text’s secrets. From there, it’s one amazing battle after another, with our two heroes vying with Jade Fox over the new fighting master Jen.
This is one of the most beautiful films in years, with rich sets, scenery and costumes competing with one’s attention with the fine acting and breathtaking action scenes. Lee succeeds admirably in reproducing the epic excitement of the old classic Chinese films by directors like King Hu. Though Lee takes advantage of digital effects to enhance the image, the fight choreography of Yuen Woo-Ping (Iron Monkey) is unapologetic in its use of wirework to make the performers effortlessly defy gravity. The actors run up walls, float over rooftops and skim lakes like fairies, in gorgeous photography by the ironically named Peter Pan (Bride of Chucky, Bride with White Hair).
We should all be familiar with the work of Chow (from The Corruptor to The Killer) and Yeoh (from Tomorrow Never Dies to Royal Warriors), but Ziyi Zhang is a fresh face in movies, and a welcome one. It’s especially thrilling to see her mowing down opponents in the old Golden Harvest bi-level restaurant set, just as so many kung fu stars have before her. Pei-Pei Cheng’s presence resonates back to the series of action films she starred in as the “Golden Swallow” during the 1960s. Character actor Sihung Lung is a familiar face from Ang Lee’s films, and steals many of his scenes with subtle humor.
To fans of Asian cinema, the elements on display here are nothing new, but to see them presented in such a classy package makes all the sword-work and magic seem new again – and indeed, it will be new for the majority of viewers.
Sony Pictures Classics deserves high praise for giving this incredible film a wide release uncut and undubbed. Let’s hope that this leads to renewed interest in and reassessment of martial arts films of this type.