IN THE LAST couple years, one entertainment concept has managed to draw viewers to the small screen, the arthouse theaters, and the multiplexes. A trend to follow for the new millennium, it could be exploitative or empowering, and usually a little of both. That's right--I'm talking about Girls Kicking Ass.

It all started a decade ago, as French cinema proved it could be as mindlessly kinetic as ours with La Femme Nikita. The lousy American remake and Eurotrashy TV version nearly derailed the ass-kickin' train, but GKA made a comeback with another movie-to-TV rehash, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its low-rent sister, Xena: Warrior Princess. 1999 saw Trinity in The Matrix matching Keanu high-kick for high-kick (whatever happened to Carrie-Ann Moss, anyway?).

But all this was mere prologue for a year that brought us a gritty, realistic look at GKA with the indie film Girlfight and the ultimate in saucy savagery with Charlie's Angels. Now comes the most subtle, artistic, and, yes, touching entry in the GKA mode, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Here we see the genre returning to its subtitled roots, enhanced by a sense of humanity into something much more than an action film.

Crouching Tiger is directed by Ang Lee, a filmmaker known much more for empathetic treatment of characters (in movies like Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm) than outrageous fight choreography. In returning to his Asian roots with this epic set in a mythical, ancient China, Lee has combined the balletic, gravity-defying martial arts style familiar to fans of Hong Kong action cinema with the warmth and sensitivity of his made-in-Taiwan gems Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet.

A couple of important precepts of the Girls Kicking Ass movement are: a) the girl must kick ass without undue resort to firearms, poisons, or other cowardly methods--hand-to-hand weapons or straight-on kung fu is preferred; and b) she must look fantastic doing it. The harmonious coexistence of confident femininity and ass-kicking vigor is perhaps the key "message" of the GKA experience. In both of these spheres, Crouching Tiger hits the jackpot with Michelle Yeoh.

Anyone who's seen The Heroic Trio, Supercop, or Wing Chun knows that this Malaysian-born sparkplug combines a deceptively delicate, steely-eyed beauty with the ability to jump, spin, and kick all in one motion. Even her hemmed-in performance in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies was the best thing in that sorry concoction. Here she plays Yu Shu Lien, whose pursuit of a stolen jade sword brings her in touch with the unrequited love of her life, Li Mu Bai, played by Chow Yun-Fat.

It's a measure of Crouching Tiger's equal-opportunity storytelling that Chow, an action-film icon from John Woo's Hong Kong days and a smoldering presence in his own right, is often relegated to bystander status. As Yu Shu Lien pursues the stolen sword, her quarry turns out to be the formidable Jen Yu, a lithe teenaged dynamo who's young enough to be her daughter. Newcomer Zhang Ziyi more than holds her own against her impressive co-stars, and the graceful, furious battles between the two women are some of the film's best moments.

Crouching Tiger might be both more impressive and more puzzling to those who aren't familiar with the magical realism in which it deals. Movies like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk are good preparation for the physics-bending rules here, which allow for moonwalk-sized leaps across bamboo roofs and hand-to-hand combat among the willowy upper reaches of a majestic forest.

An even better preparation might be to keep one's expectations as grounded as the film's heroes are high-flying. Crouching Tiger roars into Portland with some of the most hyperbolic advance praise in memory, with some calling it "one of the best films ever." That's stretching it, but for a good time (unless you're one of those insecure males who can't handle the whole notion of GKA) at the movies, you could do a whole lot worse.