Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

Filmmaker Ang Lee's varied career began with his Taiwan family films ("Eat, Drink, Man, Woman") and went on to period ("Sense and Sensibilities") and modern ("The Ice Storm") drama. He returns to his Chinese roots, this time with a tale of legends and love in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Robin:
Slick martial arts and high tech action sequences alone do not make a film. They may raise the interest bar some for a mediocre film and story, but they cannot make a move "good" by themselves. Director Ang Lee understands this and uses these film tools, along with solid story, acting and techs, to create an above average work in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Set in the early 19th China, Wudan martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is about to retire to a life of meditation, even though the death of his master at the hands of the infamous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei) goes unavenged. He gives his fabled, 400-year old sword, known as Green Destiny, to fellow master and unrequited love, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), to be delivered to his master's closest friend in Beijing. En route to the city, Yu meets the beautiful, willful niece, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), of the local governor. Later, a masked thief steals Green Destiny and escapes with Yu in hot pursuit.

The sword undergoes an almost comic disappearing/appearing act while Li journeys to Beijing. Yu thinks he has come for the remarkable blade, but soon learns that Li's devotion is to her, not some possession. Li has learned, through his meditation, that true love is the most important thing as he opens up his heart to Shu Lien. Meanwhile, he finds out that the young thief - as suspected, it is Jen - is a secret devotee to the Wudan discipline and he offers to school the girl in his warrior skills. She rebukes him and Li soon discovers that Jen has links to his nemesis, Jade Fox. Revenge is imminent.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a loving creation by Ang Lee that pays homage on different levels. It permits the helmer to explore the past legends of China with his depiction of larger than life characters that have mystical powers beyond the realm of us mere mortals. Ang gives praise to the valuable contribution of martial arts in the visual world of action film. He also delves into the realm of unrequited love between his star characters, a coming of age story with the beautiful Jen, and her romance with a wild, desert nomad prince, Lo (Chang Cheng). Interspersed with these dramatic stories are some light, comic moments that temper the overall serious tone.

These varied stories are interwoven into a rich film tapestry that brings us into a world where martial discipline and super-human powers are a way of life. This premise leads to some remarkable, choreographed fight scenes that are second to none. Yen Woo-Ping, the fights choreographer who made "The Matrix" such an appealing blockbuster, pushes the envelop with wire F/X that sometimes dazzle (and sometimes don't). The most affective fight sequences are the ones where the wire stunts are kept to a minimum. When Yu and Jen are pitted against each other, it is one of the best action sequences of the film. In contrast, when the wire stunts are in full gear, they look artificial - fun, but artificial.

The wire-based special F/X give the players the ability to defy gravity and, quite literally, climb walls with a single bound and float across rooftops. When Li and Jen do battle on the top limbs of a bamboo forest, the look is, at once, exciting and a little funny in the awkwardness the actors have in performing the state of the art stunts. The traditional fight sequences do not fall into the quagmire of more of the same, though. Each battle is unique and exciting in its own way. A fight between Jen and Lo, on horseback and at top speed, rivals the best of America's western action.

The love stories that are woven into the tale take two paths - old and new. Li and Yu have been longtime allies in arms and have respected each other for many years. Li, who was never aware of Yu as a woman before his meditations, comes to realize that she is his one, true love. The melancholy romance takes on a bittersweet tone as we hope the couple is together at the finish. On the other end of the spectrum of love is the confrontational attraction between Jen and Lo. Like Li and Yu, the young couple is well matched in temper and physical ability and their romance takes on an urgency as Jen looks to Lo as her escape from a mundane arranged marriage.

Chow Yun-Fat was a last minute replacement as Li Mu Bai. Prior to his signing on, action star Jet Li was slotted to play Li, but other obligations forced the younger action star to bow out of the production. Chow brings a maturity and dignity to his role as a Wudan master that reminds me of John Steed in the old "Avenger" TV series. When Li does battle with the athletic Jen, his movement is minimal and his physical control total. The action star, best known for fighting his opponents with blazing guns, takes to the wire stunts quite well. There is an exception, though, when Li first flies after the fleeing Jen, he points to the sky before lifting off. I half expected him to declare, "I'm Superman!" Otherwise, the performer provides a quiet, strong character that garners respect from all.

Michelle Yeoh does a wonderful, understated job of portraying the intelligent, capable Yu Shu Lien. There is real pain in her face as she explains to the young Jen that independence has its price - a life full of loneliness. Yeoh is intriguing to watch in her action work, but she also garners sympathy with her sad acceptance of the cost of her independence.

Zhang Ziyi, as Jen, steals the show with her beauty, grace and physical ability. I was struck, the first time seeing the young actress appears on the screen, with her resemblance to the great Chinese actress Gong Li. That is, until I found out that Zhang is also the discovery of premier Chinese director Zhang Yimou, just like Gong Li. Zhang has such presence on the screen that she stands toe-to-toe with her more seasoned costars. She is a pleasure to watch with her kung fu moves and poise and reps the next generation of action star. Chang Cheng, as Lo, gives a spirited performance opposite Zhang and comes across as a likable brigand who is head over heels in love with Jen.

Other supporting cast members are full-fledged characters, especially Cheng Pei-Pei with her wicked malevolence as Jade Fox. Ang uses his minor characters to introduce the necessary comic relief that helps give depth to the film and flesh out the support into real people.

The multiplicity of stories is handled deftly by helmer Lee and translates to the screen nicely, especially due to the film's fine technical qualities. Set in the Forbidden City, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" captures both the look and period feel in its 19th century backdrop. Costume, too, fits the bill from Li's austere, almost monkish attire to Jen's beautiful wardrobe and ninja-like rags. Photography by Peter Pau, particularly for the action scenes, is exemplary.

The artificial look of the more ambitious fighting F/X detracts from the overall quality of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." This is especially distracting when compared with the more traditional action, which is brilliantly done at times. But, a good story, attractive and likable stars, and great action do make this one of the season's best entertainment values. I give it a B+.

Laura:
When legendary Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat, "Anna and the King") entrusts his ancient green sword to Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, "Tomorrow Never Dies") for transport to Sir Te (Sihung Lung, "Eat Drink Man Woman") in Peking, she wonders at his decision - is he finally ready to declare long unspoken emotions and settle down with her? The sword, however, is covetted by a mysterious new warrior, apparently the protege of Li Mu Bai's long time enemy Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), and is stolen on its first night in Sir Te's study. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are pulled back into the life of the swordfighter as their romance is reflected by that of a younger couple in director Ang Lee's ("Sense and Sensibility") "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Ang Lee established himself in the filmmaking world with his Chinese trilogy of patriarchal films "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet," and "Eat Drink Man Woman." He then further proved himself with three wildly different English language speaking films, "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil." Now he tries his hand at the Chinese martial arts genre he grew up with and delivers an epic entertainment that may very well cross over from the art house to American multiplexes.

The story (screenplay by Hui-Ling Wang ("Eat Drink Man Woman), James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai) contains all the elements of a genre romantic fantasy adventure. There's a fantastic sword, not unlike a Jedi knight's light saber, whose owner has developed mixed feelings for after years of bloodshed. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien's love is clear for all to see, yet long denied by themselves (for noble reasons, of course, as she was once betrothed to his brother who was killed in action). A new fighter emerges in a most unexpected guise, Jen Yu (newcomer Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of an aristrocat promised in an unwanted arranged marriage. Jen is caught between a natural inclination towards good and the evil that is her governess/teacher - the infamous Jade Fox. Her lover is Lo (Chen Chang, "Happy Together"), a gypsy bandit who once had the audacity to attempt to steal her hair comb. The flashback which fills in the history of Jen and Lo's romance is one of the highlights of the film - sexy, funny, touching and of course, full of action.

The screenplay delivers with several story lines intermingled, all evoking the full spectrum of human emotion. Of course, the story is studded with numerous action sequences, featuring the balletic fight choreography of Yen Woo-Ping ("The Matrix"). While most of his work is exemplary (particularly the fights between Jen and Yu Shu), I found the 'flying' sequences a bit too fantastical. Skipping over water and fighting atop a bamboo forest work, but the rest of the action would have been better served a bit more earthbound. Cinematography by Peter Pau ("The Bride with White Hair") captures the action while also broadening scope to capture breathtaking scenery in both green, misty mountain terrain and sun scorched deserts. Tim Squyres' editting is top notch. The film is gorgeously scored by Tan Dun, featuring the work of celloist Yo Yo Ma.

Michelle Yeoh should be receiving some serious attention for a Best Actress nomination. Her subtle work here is heart breaking and the most compelling in the film. On the opposite end of the scale, Chen Chang ("Happy Together") gives a rousingly endearing performance as the sexy, good hearted bandit Lo, while newcomer Ziyi Zhang demonstrates she's got the moves. Chow Yun Fat is a bit hampered by the legendary status of his character, to which he brings enormous nobility. Sihung Lung ("Eat Drink Man Woman") is humorously sage as Sir Te.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has something for everyone. It's a huge film by a director who must now be regarded as a world class auteur.

A-

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