Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

(© 2000 Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.)

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon arrives in the United States amid so much fanfare and critical adulation that most viewers will be surprised to find what a simple movie it is, a childrenís tale filled with warriors and witches, mystical swords and magic potions. Itís light-hearted material for director Ang Lee whose previous works are marked by emotional gravity and unflattering realism. But the always versatile Lee is remarkably assured with Crouching Tigerís melodrama. His sharp eye finds the smallest details and draws our attention to them in sly ways. He also proves to be a masterful martial arts director, staging the most inventive, lyrical fight scenes in recent memory. With the help of some of Hong Kongís best actors, including Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and startling newcomer Zhang ZiYi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is first-rate entertainment, free of pretense and self-import, and always eager to please.

Picking up midway through an ancient Chinese folktale, Crouching Tiger begins with the end of one story and concludes with the beginning of another. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is an aging warrior from the Wudan family, a Jedi-like breed of super warriors. Planning to retire, he entrusts his magic sword, the Green Destiny, to his confidant Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). But the sword is soon stolen by Shu Lienís friend Jen (Zhang ZiYi), a young maiden by day and a fearless warrior by night. To retrieve the sword, Li must confront his old enemy, the Jade Fox, a diabolical sorceress who murdered Liís master long ago. The screenplay, written by Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung, keeps the good guy/bad guy stand-offs to a minimum and plays up the antagonisms between the three protagonists. Shu Lien, angered by Jenís duplicity, still cannot bring herself to condemn Jen, partially out of pity (Jen is betrothed to an older man) and because she sees the makings of a strong woman. Li is also intrigued by Jen, and after fighting her, wishes to take her on as his Wudan apprentice. Li and Shu Lien nearly forget about their own attraction to each other, which they acknowledge through looks but never words.

Most people will want to see Crouching Tiger for its fight scenes and they wonít be disappointed. But those seeking depth will be surprised to find that the fight scenes contain the movieís most complex moments. Thereís a lot at stake, be it the Green Destiny or the bond between two sworn sisters, and it all registers in the actorsí eyes. Choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping, who employs aspects of acrobatics and dance, the fight scenes breathe with unadulterated reality. Even when the fighters soar through the air with their magical Wudan powers, it still feels real. Lee used actual wires, not computer effects, to propel his actors across roof tops and tree tops, and the results are as gracefully awkward as a large crane in flight. The best fight sequences are the ones between Shu Lien and Jen. Both are strong; one is filled with hubris, the other with humility. These fights end in draws, as they should since both participants respect and fear each other, though neither admits it.

Even when the fighting has stopped, Crouching Tiger refuses to settle down. The story takes several unexpected turns, the most notable of which is an extended flashback of a romance Jen has with the rebel warrior Lo (Chang Chen). With the canyons of the Gobi desert serving as a backdrop, Jen and Lo fight, flirt, and fall in love like pagan gods. Their attraction, being based on a mutual need for independence, is doomed from the start and we can accurately predict how it will end. Their romance halts the movieís flow and adds overt lovemaking to its understated passions. It would have worked better in a different movie, a sequel perhaps.

Itís hard to complain about anything in this movie without sounding like a bore. Itís pure escapist fun made deeper by Ang Leeís attention to subtlety. Those familiar with Leeís earlier movies will no doubt wish he had made something more specialized and less accessible. But in a way, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonís story is ideal for him. It contains themes and ideas heís comfortable with, particularly the conflict between youth and middle age. And it gives him the chance to tackle a genre heís never done before, a challenge he seems to enjoy. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may not be Ang Leeís best movie, but itís undeniable evidence of a filmmaker in constant motion.


[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]


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