One of cinema's greatest moments, Ang Lee's film has already achieved the status of classic and would probably have made a clean sweep at the Oscars, instead of winning just four, had Gladiator and Traffic not been in contention in the same year, dividing the Academy. It has since gone on to become the biggest cross-over martial arts film ever.
The story centres on legendary warriors Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (martial arts films veterans Yun-Fat Chow and Michelle Yeoh), who become involved in the theft of the legendary sword Green Destiny. Also caught up in the mystery is the city mayor's seemingly demure daughter Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang) and Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Cheng), the villainess who killed Li Mu Bai's master and stole the mysterious secrets of their martial arts lore. In addition, Jen Yu is hiding secrets from her father - her covert bandit lover, Black Cloud (Chen Chang), and her mastery of martial arts.
The film is set in a mythical China, based on Wang Du Lu's successful early 20th century novel. As well as the stars, the movie's success comes from Peter Pau's breathtaking, Oscar-winning cinematography, with every frame a sumptuous delight, and Yuen Wo-Ping's special wire effects (he also worked on The Matrix for the action scenes, including a stupendous rooftop and wall flight/fight, and a tree-top fight between Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu, with the actors themselves in action rather than stunt men and women.
The film is also a tale of the unrequited love between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, whose relationship offers some of the film's most tender moments, and the machinations of the villainous Jade Fox, playing off the protagonists against each other.
Lee had to re-arrange his shooting schedule when Yeoh badly injured herself in an early action sequence and, while her leg healed, could only be shot from the waist up.