Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Movie Index


Directed by Ang Lee
(2000, Sony Pictures Classics)

Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang

A stolen sword attracts a master warrior to search for a potential, but aggressive, student.


-- 4th viewing (DVD)
February 16th, 2018


Still awesome!


-- 3rd viewing (DVD)
September 27, 2003


The heart of this movie is the fighting style, and it is really worth watching. I just can't get over the incredible detail the director goes into in filming the action, the way the actors learned their moves to give it a real life of its own. I was looking forward to the fight in the restaurant right from the start, and was not disappointed. The fist-fight near the beginning between Shu-Lien and Jen was also a great way to introduce us to the style of the movie.

I also quite enjoyed Jen's time as a captive, then as a willing participant, in the desert. She is so petulant and spoilt, and of course she knows some fighting moves because of her mentor, so she feels like she's being held back, and that she is invincible. Her captor had his work cut out for him, but he managed to keep a sense of humor. I loved it when he untied her before her bath, just loosening the ropes and then running away from her reach!

Of course, another theme of the movie is the ease with which Li Mu Bai, the trained warrior, could defeat any of his opponents. The first time he had Jade Fox within his grasp, however, somebody else needed his attention more. Jen gave all she had in her duel, but Bai was completely rested all throughout. That was great.

The movie is thoroughly enjoyable, even after several viewings.


-- 2nd viewing (DVD)
May 5th, 2002


Although the novelty of the fighting style has worn off a little, the magic is still there. 

I found the story lacking a little, though it didn't pull any punches in the way it delivered a true tragic quest.  I like the quest idea a lot.  Jen is searching for adventure and wants to prove to the world that she can be independent -at all costs.  She realizes only too late that there is somebody in the world who truly cares about her and whom it would be okay to rely on.  And she can't accept her life after he dies.  In a true Zen way, her lover understands!

Li Mu Bai is on a quest of his own.  He knows that many things are missing from his life, things that were taken away because of his warrior way of life.  He lost his love because of it; like Jen, he waited too long to declare it.  He tries too hard to convince Jen to be his student, and she slips through his fingers (not entirely his fault, mind you).  His only goal in life, the one thing that has eaten away at him for years, is to get back at Jade Fox for murdering his master.  And it has gnawed at him for so long, that it does not let him rest.

Shu Lien is caught up in this struggle because she cares for both of these people.  She loves Li Mu Bai but knows that they cannot be lovers.  She wants to protect such a young life, though Jen is far from innocent.  Her struggle was clear on her beautiful face.

But the main draw of this movie is, of course, the fighting.  Once again, it is terrific -all style, but with substance as well.  Both fist and sword fights were wonderful, and just left me exhausted!  I probably said enough about it below, but it was still so great that I had to mention it again.  I think the fist-fighting near the very beginning is the best part!  Jen clearing the bar of patrons was hilarious, and I loved the way Li Mu Bai was able to fight Jen and anybody else without even breaking a sweat! 

As for the DVD, it took some maneuvering before I got it right.  I first set it to play, by default, with English dubbing.  Ew!  Terrible -I think anybody who has seen this movie dubbed should turn around and watch it in Mandarin with subtitles instead!  It took three or four tries, but I managed to do it.  But for those who don't like to read their movies, it is offered dubbed in several languages.

There is a making of... feature on the DVD, which doesn't really add much to the movie.  It was nice to hear the actors Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh talk about the experience, and the director, too, but I would have liked a little more showing and less talking.  There were only a couple of wire scenes shown, of which I would have liked to see more.  The choreographer was interesting, as well as the composer, but I don't think they got enough screen time. 

The Conversation with Michelle Yeoh was interesting -but she sure can talk!  She recounted her experiences in the movie, and in other movies, in a very expressive manner.  She looked so different from her Crouching Tiger persona, though! 

The rest of the special features include the two trailers -the US one looked much better than the International one, a filmography, which was useful, and a photo gallery, which is the most impressive photo sequence that I've seen.  It was actually animated, with the film camera closing in or expanding from a particular area of the photo.  Unlike other DVDs, it required no interaction from the remote control, but faded from one picture to the next, and it was accompanied all the while by the movie soundtrack.  I was impressed.


-- First viewing (Theatre)
February 24th, 2001


Now that was something truly spectacular. The best part of the movie was, of course, every scene where the opponents fought, but the story, music, and acting were all top notch as well.

I can't remember the last time a movie elicited this kind of response in me. I think it was Shakespeare in Love, way back. Sure, there were some silly moments, but they are forgivable in context, when you think about the style of the movie.

I used to be reluctant to watch movies with subtitles, but since Life is Beautiful, and then Run, Lola, Run, I'm much more receptive. And it was definitely worth it. 

The best thing about this movie was the way the fight scenes were set up and performed. They were engaging, professional, and incredibly entertaining. The stylistic fights, involving the mysterious Wudan way of fighting managed to show a range that I haven't seen before. It looked like something out of Star Wars, where the fighters can use a single point on the end of a finger to push an opponent far away. It was like a Force push. They could climb walls using just the tips of their toes, jump to the rooftops without effort, and even fly through the air and walk on water. 

I enjoyed the hand-to-hand combat the most. Punches, blocks, twists and pushes were made and countered in split-seconds. I wondered if they were filmed at a slow speed and sped up for viewing, but I could see no evidence of that. So it was either incredible acting by the stunt artists, or seamless effects. The sword fighting was also amazing. In one case, the fight took a back seat to style, as Li and Jen fight in two trees.

Some members of the audience were laughing in absurdity as the two fighters flew over water, touching down for merely an instant to push off again. Sure, it looked a little silly, but it was very consistent with the style of the fight scenes. 

In a martial arts movie like this, you don't expect strong story. In fact, I wasn't sure how to make a short summary of this movie. We start off finding out that legendary warrior Li Mu Bai has decided to retire from his life of fighting. He turns over his sword for safe keeping to a friend. But the sword is promptly stolen. Li Mu Bai's female friend, Shu Lien, gives chase, but the thief gets away after a five minute hand fight! But Shu Lien recognizes her opponent when she looks into her eyes. Earlier, the Governor's daughter had admired the sword, and expressed regret at being forced to marry and give up her life of freedom. She showed no sign of knowing how to fight, but Shu Lien knows, though she doesn't say anything. 

Li Mu Bai arrives and discovers that people believe it was Jade Fox who stole the sword, the same person who murdered his master at the Wudan training monastery. They meet in a face-off in a field, between a policeman, a security guard, the policeman's daughter, Li Mu Bai, Jade Fox, and her unknown protégé. The face-off is terrific, with even Jade Fox showing awe at how her protégé fights, suddenly realizing that her student has surpassed her. 

The next morning, Shu Lien invites Jen and her mother to visit, and they discuss the missing sword, and she makes sure Jen realizes that Li Mu Bai will stop at nothing to get the sword back. That night, Jen arrives with the sword, and duels with Bai again, and Bai retrieves the sword. He offers to teach her the true ways of Wudan fighting, but Jen will not have it, being corrupted by Jade Fox and her evil teachings. In that duel, the difference in skill is so obviously shown. Jen is in a rage, like the dark side of the Force, putting every effort into her fight, while Bai barely uses one hand and doesn't break a sweat to defeat her. 

Jen goes home and is about to resign herself to being a married woman, when she gets a visitor from her past. Her family had been attacked in a convoy one day in the deep desert, and a handsome rogue had stolen her comb. She leaped on a horse and followed him, killing or maiming many of his men in the process. Eventually they tire, and he brings her back to his lair, where they fight, brawl, and eventually fall in love. However, she is forced to go back to her family, for the safety of all. 

Once these memories surface, Jen decides to escape before it's too late. She steals the sword again, and runs away, deciding to become a rogue herself. In order to make a reputation for herself, she goes to the underworld, where she takes on an entire restaurant of bad guys. It's an amazing fight, with opponent after opponent falling to her arms and fists. By the end, the restaurant is in ruins!

Jen challenges Shu Lien to a duel, and although they are obviously evenly matched at first, Shu Lien tires faster, and Jen wins the duel. But Li Mu Bai interferes before Jen can kill her foe, and follows her as she makes her escape. The duel in the trees follows, and Bai once again offers to teach Jen. Once again she refuses, but we can see that she's not far from breaking down. But then Jade Fox appears, and "rescues" her, drugging her and setting a trap for Li Mu Bai, who promptly appears. 

Once she sees Fox's treachery, Jen finally comes around, but it is too late, because even when dying, Fox is able to poison Bai, and the antidote takes too long to make. It was at this point that I thought Shu Lien would kill Jen, and she almost does, but she tells the younger woman to go to her desert lover, who is living high in the mountains at the moment. Jen does this, and after spending the night with her lover, jumps from a bridge with faith in an ancient legend that wishes can be granted by doing so. Her lover watches on as she dives... 

The story is no doubt a tragedy, and it might be unfulfilling to some. But I thought it was a strong story. Jen thinks she's the greatest fighter in the world, and when Bai comes into her life, she can't accept that he's better than she is. She can't swallow her pride to let him teach her the true way, but she starts to accept him more every time they meet. Finally, when she is ready to learn, she loses him forever. 

On a visual front, aside from the fight scenes, which were spectacular, the two female leads were absolutely beautiful! Even though they looked fragile when they were talking and having tea, I had no doubt in my mind that they were lethal as they fought. I thought the young woman would have trouble keeping the awkwardness out of her moves, but every single punch, block, even every stumble, was that of a mature fighter. There were none of the little "womanish" insecurities that American films tend to put in, and this worked very much in the movie's favour. 

The scenery, being from wide open China, was also spectacular. The forests, mountains, even the desert, were beautiful. I love the sense of culture that was portrayed, in the simple dwellings, the rich-looking but Spartan decor, and the lush gardens. It's time to go to the Chinese Gardens again in Montreal, though I fear it's too late for the ice sculptures. Also nicely shown were the markets and other settings, which portrayed an amazingly rich culture. 

I would go see this movie again in a moment, because it was so beautiful to watch. Even if the story wasn't to my liking (it most definitely was), or anything else, the fight scenes, which must take up a third of the running time, would be worth a second look, or even a third, in the theatre.


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