You may know your Hong Kong-style martial-arts flick conventions, you may not, it doesn't matter: There's a moment in the first fight sequence of Ang Lee's thrilling romantic saga Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when you realize that the filmmaker has led you to a land of epic storytelling very much his own, one fantastically independent of the laws of physics. One velvety dark night in long-ago imperial China, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a beautiful, highly skilled warrior, pursues a masked thief who has stolen the legendary sword of Shu Lien's great friend and fellow artist Lee Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat).
Shu Lien is lithe, but so, too, is the thief, who appears, in dainty size and quick grace, to be another woman, Jen (porcelain-lovely young Zhang Ziyi). Like Shu Lien, Jen is a guest at the home of the eminent elder Sir Te (Lung Sihung). Unlike Shu Lien, Jen is a young person who doesn't yet understand herself. The two clang swords in a flashing duet choreographed by the great fight master Yuen Wo-Ping (he made Keanu Reeves fly in The Matrix). And as they parry, the two women leap from wall to wall, propelled like Fred Astaire. Then they tiptoe on the tiled roof and vault from building to building. You watch, vaulting with them, excited, and when the bout ends... you've burst into applause.
The fights in Crouching Tiger are breathtaking, matched by Lee's ability to create psychological depth. As in so many of his projects, this is a story about the gaps between imperfect human beings and their ideals of behavior and social intercourse. Also characteristic are the exquisitely small gestures Shu Lien's hand touching Mu Bai's, say, in a swooning moment between an ardent Yeoh and Chow that convey swells of emotion. But in this story, especially, Lee also advances a revolutionary agenda of female equality, in a country that traditionally officially undervalues females. ''A baby girl! Good!'' Shu Lien exclaims to Sir Te upon learning of the birth of an infant. ''I'll be glad if she's as strong as you,'' the old man replies.
Lee has said that making a Hong Kong-style martial-arts film was always his dream. While in reverie, then, the director who first came to prominence with his ''Father Knows Best'' trilogy (including The Wedding Banquet) created his own refined interpretations of English literature (Sense and Sensibility), 1970s Stateside suburban malaise (The Ice Storm), and the American Civil War (Ride With the Devil). As it turns out, the dream deferred has been worth the wait. Soaring and romantic, wild and serene, feminist and gutsy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of the best movies of the year. A