Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
directed by Ang Lee
(Sony Pictures Classics, 2000)

Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee, a well-known award-winner for his arty dramas with contemporary Taiwanese, American or European recent-past settings, has finally returned to his roots in a homage to the beloved genre films of his boyhood -- the Wu Xia Pian or martial arts, knight errant, fantasy adventure.

The power and significance of family, a favorite theme of Lee's, as explored in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, gives depth and emotional power to this dazzlingly beautiful martial arts fantasy adventure set in Manchu period China (early 19th century). Based on a Wu Xia novel (a hugely popular genre in Chinese written fiction, too), the plot focuses on the retiring Wudan martial arts adept Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat, charismatic Hong Kong star in his first period movie). Li is giving up his heirloom, a magical sword of uncanny swiftness and sharpness known as the Green Destiny, in order to devote the remainder of his life to meditation after failing to save his late master from the evil skills of the criminal villainess Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei, a famous martial arts star in her own right, now an "elder stateswoman").

Li is called back into the fray when Jen (a young and nubile Zhang Zi Yi), an aristocratic young woman who longs to escape the confines of an impending marriage by becoming a freelance swordfighter, steals (with the help of her teacher, none other than Jade Fox) the Green Destiny sword. To get his valued blade back, Li calls upon his comrade, another veteran warrior (with whom he is secretly in love), Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, the premiere female fighting star in Asia). The pair of pugilists spend the rest of the movie seeking to confront Jade Fox and set the talented but misguided Jen on the path of righteousness.

An important subplot involves a doomed romance between Jen and a desert outlaw Lo, the Dark Cloud (handsome Chang Chen), told in a lengthy, lyrical and feisty flashback to emphasize Jen's dilemma -- being torn between her longing for Lo and her feminist yearning for freedom.

The title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon refers to the heroic potential inside us all waiting for the right reason to appear. The movie represents a heroic effort and success on every artistic front. Capturing the audience's interest is a stirring plot loaded with romance, passion, significant sacrifice and refreshing moments of genuine humor, it shows director Lee's expertise in narrative pacing and film-making form. The acting by all the leading performers is excellent as are their beautiful, balletic, graceful martial art skills with enough real, complex movement amidst the spectacular superheroic flying SFX to please everyone, with aerial stunts of unprecedented verisimilitude on top of roofs and in the treetops. This glorious action is the work of no less than one of the top martial art choreographers with a huge, prestigious track record in Hong Kong, Yuen Wo Ping (a fine director in his own right), known in the West for his work on The Matrix. The latest CGI technology is also put to good use -- digitally removing the wires that made possible the flying sequences, thus making them unusually believable for they could then be shot from all angles and CGI-rendered an awesome, realistic panoramic aerial establishing shot of Beijing in all its 19th-century glory.

This movie has it all: a moving and universal theme; well-drawn, well-acted characters, especially the inspiring amazon-like women warriors; beautiful sets and scenic mainland China locations; gorgeous costumes; rich atmospheric moodiness and magnificent cinematography; breathtaking martial arts sequences; a surprising ending of great emotional power; and an exquisite score by symphony percussionist Tan Dun with cello solos by Yo Yo Ma.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, thanks to Ang Lee's proven track record in his previous Euro-American oriented films, is making history with this wide distribution release -- unheard of for a movie with English subtitles, with an all-Asian cast set in a non-Western, historical/cultural milieu. Of course, this cinematic offering's awesomely thrilling entertainment value and artistic excellence also made this possible for Lee and has elevated the Wu Xia genre picture to heights of production values never before seen. Let's hope the success of this film in the West will pave the way for lots more like it to be widely accepted here.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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