S ince springing to the forefront of foreign directors with the charming "Eat Drink Man Woman," Ang Lee's projects have been decidedly varied and culturally diverse:. from a splendid redo of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" to his chilling indictment of the '70s with "The Ice Storm" to the Civil War adventure "Ride With The Devil." No one can accuse Lee of not taking chances. That holds true for Lee's latest work, a martial arts epic destined to redefine the genre if not moviemaking itself. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a stunning, lyrical meeting of East and West. Combining incredible action sequences with a little romance and lots of superhero flash, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a winner in any language. A mere 20 minutes into the film when two fighting women begin bounding up high walls and using rooftops for trampolines it's clear that this is no ordinary martial arts movie. Employing the mastery of martial arts choreographer Yuen-Wo Ping ("The Matrix."), Lee fills this epic fantasy-adventure with the hippest action possible without sacrificing either plot or character development. One of the movie's action sequences a breathtaking, gravity-defying sword fight high among the upper branches of a bamboo forest deserves to be a milestone in film history. Lee draws his richly complex plot from a pre-World War II Chinese novel by Wag Du Lu about wuxia a class of honorable and loyal warrior knights during the time of Confucius who often had superhuman speed, reflexes and strength. Although there is a level of corniness and melodrama inherent in the source material, Lee's talented cast never succumbs to it. The story begins when Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a serene but famously deadly warrior, decides to hang up his sword, a legendary, 400-year-old blade known as Green Destiny. He's still keen on avenging the death of his late master, who was killed by the witchlike Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei). But now more inclined to a meditative life, Li entrusts the sword to Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a friend and warrior with whom he has shared a mutual, long-suppressed love. Delivering the sword to Beijing, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a headstrong politician's daughter unhappily facing an arranged marriage. When Green Destiny is stolen, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" kicks into high gear. Secret alliances are revealed, duplicitous females unmasked, and old wounds confronted, avenged and healed. And along the way, we in the audience are treated to immeasurable delights and awesome sights. While the martial-arts displays, swordplay and choreography rightfully will spark the most talk about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," their impact would be much less without the exemplary acting of Chow, Yeoh, Zhang, Cheng and Chang Chen as a desert outlaw and Jen's former lover. Each delivers a nuanced performance you'd hardly expect to find in a martial arts movie. Best-known for contemporary action flicks and playing opposite Jodie Foster in "Anna and The King," Chow fills Li with a centered calm, effectively offsetting his occasional, necessary bursts of violence. Yeoh, known in the United States from her roles in "Supercop" and the Bond flick "Tomorrow Never Dies," brings an impressive maturity and pathos to a role that's also physically demanding. But the secret to the film's dramatic success is Zhang as Jen. She has that indefinable "it" that the camera loves, absorbs and magnifies. The mere sight of this petite powerhouse holding her own with larger opponents is the film's constant treat. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" may read like grandiose pulp fiction. But it's presented with intelligence and humor that's distinguished by a stellar cast, a bit of female empowerment and the coolest stunts and effects. Oh yeah, it's also in Cantonese with subtitles; but get over it. You'll be kicking yourself if you miss this Ang Lee masterpiece on the big screen.