Dir: Ang Lee. US-China. 2000. 120 mins.

Prod.cos: China Film Co-Production Corp. and Asia Union Film & Entertainment Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia in association with US dist: Sony Pictures Classics. Intl sales: Good Machine Intl. Prods: Bill Kong, Hsu Li Kong, Ang Lee. Scr: Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, Tsai Kuo Jung. DoP: Peter Pau. Prod des: Tim Yip. Ed: Timm Squires. Music: Tan Tun. Main cast: Chow Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh, Zi Yi Zhang, Chen Chang, Sihung Lung.

Ang Lee's first effort in the highly specialised chop-socky genre looks as if he's been there all his life. Could this possibly be the same man who made Sense and Sensibility' It seems unlikely. But then if you're familiar with the pace, grace and elegance of the best of the genre, you may not be so surprised. There's an art to it as well as mere commercial flair, as film-makers such as King Hu have proved before. Like Hu's films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon looks a treat, has star performers who know exactly what they are doing and fight sequences that make you gasp and laugh at the same time. There's an occasional tongue-in-cheek quality about Lee's film too. But it never descends into parody and only the slightly excessive two-hour length (which actually makes it short in relation to others in this year's Cannes competition) is against full enjoyment

Set during the Ching Dynasty, and thus a period piece where costumes and decor matter and even the scenery becomes important, the film tells its melodramatic story with all the usual cliches intact as if Ang Lee was determined to do as well by this genre as he has by any other. In other words, he respects the source material while twisting it a little way here and there to allow us to see it in a fresh light.

The story, for instance, is audacious in that it chiefly concerns two women, both dab hands at the fight game and likely to make short work of sluggards like Brad Pitt in the film of that name. One of them has given up her constrained aristo lifestyle for crime, the other falls in love with a bandit after affirming that justice and honour are the only things that matter. They are, of course, sisters under the skin and their destinies lead them to the usual climactic showdown.

Made in China with finance from Hollywood heavyweight Sony Pictures as well as Warner Bros who have bought rights for France, the film gives Ang Lee the chance to let his hair down in a big way after The Ice Storm and Ride With The Devil. But it's not that easy to mix it with the best of a genre which requires technique of the highest order in the way of spectacle. So the film's success is a distinct feather in his cap. Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Pei Pei Cheng and Zi Yi Zhang are the principals, and you can't do much better than that. They illustrate the tale with the requisite dignity without which the plotlines might just have made us giggle too much. How they manage some of the stunts while still retaining their equilibrium passes the understanding of this critic!