Review Date: 12/21/00
Director: Ang Lee
Action Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Music: Tan Dun
Cast: Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Cheng Pei Pei, Chang Chen
A stunningly beautiful film. The traditional Chinese swordplay genre gets a serious facelift, similar to when Tsui Hark redefined the genre back in 1983 with "Zu, Warriors From The Magic Mountain" and again in 1991 with his "Once Upon A Time In China" series. Chow Yun Fat is a retired swordsman who wishes to leave his warrior life of bloodshed behind him, but a rebellious princess (incredible Zhang Ziyi) and an old enemy (kung fu veteran Cheng Pei Pei from "Come Drink With Me" (1965) ) force him to pick up the sword once again. His closest companion is Michelle Yeoh, an accomplished swordswoman herself, but the two of them have trouble expressing their feelings for each other. Princess Jen longs for an adventurous life away from the stuffy protocol of royalty and stirs up trouble when she steals Chow's legendary sword. The sword and its power slowly corrupt the young princess and she becomes an uncontrollable and unpredictable instrument of destruction. Only Chow can save her, but she isn't his only problem...
After hearing all of the positive buzz about this film over the last two years, I was extremely anxious to finally see it, although I was also a bit apprehensive. The first red flag was hearing that director Ang Lee ("Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense And Sensibility") who had never directed an action film would be making a kung fu epic. That illicited a bunch of snickering and skepticism in the film community. Secondly, Jet Li was initially cast to play the role of the retired swordsman, but was later replaced by Chow Yun Fat due to scheduling and possibly artistic conflicts. This concerned me, because now we had a kung fu film where the primary kung fu actor was being replaced by a non- kung fu actor. Lastly, for nearly a year before its U.S. release, Sony had been saying they had little faith in the film and would only release a dubbed version of it for the art theater circuit. This seriously frustrated me and made me even more nervous about the film. Thankfully, none of the aforementioned issues spoiled the integrity of the film. Director Ang Lee has done an amazing job of presenting an action oriented love story, and Yuen Woo Ping's fight choreography is utterly astounding. Chow Yun Fat does a great job with his limited action scenes and creates a dramatic sense of presence that I'm not sure Jet Li would have done as convincingly. After seeing the film, I couldn't see anyone but Chow in that role. And finally, much to my surprise, at the last minute Sony decided to give the film a wider release in its pristine subtitled form. Thank you, Sony!
First of all, the film is gorgeous and beautifully filmed. The breathtaking scenery is vast and serene, and the sets are beautiful. Michelle Yeoh delivers possibly her finest performance ever, both physically and dramatically. More than anyone else, the audience is truly in tune with what she's thinking and feeling. However, it's Zhang Ziyi who ends up stealing the show. Her fiery intensity is so overwhelming that she literally owns every scene she's in, and when she and Michelle Yeoh get together, the screen truly comes alive with energy. And much like the troubled teenager that she portrays, her emotions are destructive and all over the place. Driven by passion and fuelled by naivete and inexperience, her delivery is pure, raw, and all-consuming. She's a very dangerous woman whose power and passions are beyond her control... The action direction is flawless and beautiful to watch. Digital wire removal techniques have allowed Yuen Woo Ping to use heavier wires for more impressive stunts, and all of the players look exceedingly graceful in their maneuvers. It's also noteworthy that the combat sequences don't use the over-the-top smacking and clanging sound effects, making the battles seem much more realistic. The only real complaint I have about the film is that it seems a little long and slow paced - especially for a Hong Kong film, which generally tend to be frantic. And while I don't consider it "the 'Star Wars' of kung fu films" as Ric Meyers has, or a film to revolutionize the entire film industry as others have, I still think it's a fantastic film and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Asian swordplay or female action films.