Directed by Ang Lee, starring Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi & Chow Yun Fat.

As a child growing up in Taiwan, Ang Lee was a devotee of wu xia stories and films. Wu xia, like the western in the US, is one of the staples of Chinese fiction: it features mythical heroes with superhuman powers battling evil in both thought and deed. Now, having covered the nuances of English society ('Sense And Sensibility'), the screwups of the Nixon era ('The Ice Storm') and the chaos of the American civil war ('Ride With The Devil'), Lee has come full circle, returning to the genre which arguably inspired him to direct in the first place.

Warriors Li Mu Bai (Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) have fought side by side for years, neglecting their feelings for each other as they battled to protect the innocent and powerless across ancient China. But now Li is to retire and entrusts Yu to deliver his legendary sword 'Green Destiny' to a prominent politician in Beijing. On arrival in the city the sword is stolen and Yu is compelled to investigate. Her suspicions focus on Jen (Ziyi), a lovelorn young aristocrat fascinated with Yu's action life but burdened under the weight of a dark secret.

The shootouts in 1999's 'Ride With The Devil' showed that Ang Lee had it in him to direct action sequences, but nothing quite prepares you for his vision of combat in 'Crouching Tiger...'. Within five minutes of the opening you'll wonder when was the last time you felt so alive, so excited in a cinema - Lee's magic taking you on an enchanted rush of breakneck set pieces and heart spinning poignancy. Choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping (the man who provided 'The Matrix' with much of its thump), Lee's China mixes age-old honour and wild fantasy: across epic landscapes, characters battle for right and wrong, their sword skills enhanced by their ability to fly over rooftops and treetops.

While Chinese action films have traditonally focussed on the exploits of male heroes at the expense of female 'sidekicks', Lee turns convention on its head. He gives Yeoh and Ziyi the upfront roles with the result that the film pivots on two delicately drawn love stories: one autumnal and resigned, the other yet to fully blossom. It's a beautifully realised idea which gives the film an emotional depth hitherto unexplored in martial arts plots.

Both 'The Ice Storm' and 'Ride With The Devil' were criminally ignored when it came to Oscar nominations, for its thrills and tenderness 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' deserves to be a mainstream triumph. Don't miss this joy.

Harry Guerin