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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh
Director: Ang Lee
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 119 Minutes
Release Date: December 2000
Genres: Action, Foreign

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

The biggest hurdle facing a movie like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the enthusiasm of its own fans. All the glowing reviews and critics' awards bestowed on the production since it opened in limited release last month may lead theatergoers to anticipate more than any film can possibly deliver. If you go to "Crouching Tiger" expecting the moon and the stars, you'll likely be disappointed. But if you're in the mood for a beautifully photographed melodrama punctuated by dazzling martial arts sequences, then get ready for some big fun.

Director Ang Lee, the man behind "The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm," is known for his meticulous approach to storytelling and "Crouching Tiger" represents his most ambitious undertaking to date. Along with a series of thrilling gravity-be-damned fight scenes, Lee presents a sumptuous tale of a rebellious young woman, two aging warriors and a love-struck outlaw. While the exposition isn't as buoyant as the action set pieces and occasionally becomes a bit too stately, Lee adds humor and old fashioned romance at just the right moments to balance things out.

Set in the early 19th century, the tale begins when revered warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) decides to put away his sword, a 400-year-old blade called Green Destiny. He entrusts the legendary weapon to a friend and fellow warrior, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), asking her to deliver it to Beijing while he goes to visit the grave of his master.

In Beijing, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a politician's bright young daughter about to be forced into an arranged marriage. Desperately unhappy with the direction her life is headed, Jen wishes she could experience the adventures of a warrior and bonds with Shu Lien almost immediately.

Then all hell breaks loose.

Under the veil of night, a dark-clothed figure makes off with Green Dragon. The guards shout the alarm and the chase begins, with Shu Lien in pursuit of the thief. In an extraordinarily well-choreographed sequence, they chase each other through the compound until the thief springs onto a roof. In casual defiance of trivialities like gravity, Shu Lien skitters up a wall and the two break out their best martial arts moves, exchanging blows and leaping from rooftop to rooftop like Superman in the early days. The sequence is breathtaking and just a hint of things to come.

Each successive battle ups the visual ante, building to a showstopper with warriors soaring up through a forest, where they duke it out on impossibly thin treetop branches. I tried to sort out the internal logic of these magnificent scenes and came up with the following: A warrior cannot simply levitate at will, but can fly from one point to another as long as he or she is in battle. To stay airborne, however, they must come into contact with something physical every few seconds. It all makes for absolutely spectacular eye candy, accented by a superb score from Tan Dun, with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.

But don't make the mistake of dismissing the rest of the film as between-battle filler. There's much more going on here than trippy martial arts aerobatics. Like Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who murdered Li's master and has plans for all the principal characters. Or the long-repressed love between Li and Shu Lien, which threatens to break into a full-fledged romance. Or Li and Shu Lien's attempts to become mentors for the masked thief. Not enough? How about a dandy extended flashback revealing the forbidden affair between Jen and long-haired outlaw, Lo (Chang Chen), with the pair squabbling and smooching in the Western China desert?

There's humor as well, particularly in a riotous sequence at a frontier outpost where Jen dispatches a thug with one hand while eating dinner, and then takes on a few dozen of his friends. The comic timing in this sequence is letter perfect, with Ang Lee and company proving to be as adept at slapstick as they are at everything else.

None of this could work, of course, without a stellar group of actors. As Li, Chow Yun-fat, one of the most magnetic performers in the business, gives an appropriately restrained performance, projecting great inner strength along with an intense sense of regret. Michelle Yeoh radiates grace and vitality as Shu Lien, and Zhang Ziyi makes Jen explode with spit and thunder. As Lo, Chang Chen manages to seem at once dashing and uncertain, while, in the pivotal role of Jade Fox, Cheng Pei-pei is pure evil on a stick.

A friend of mine maintains that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a simply a contemporary martial arts movie with delusions of grandeur. Having seen relatively few films in the genre, I have no idea whether or not he is correct. But I do know that, despite a few slow spots, I love what Ang Lee has done here. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is grand entertainment on virtually every level and easily one of the best films of 2000. Don't go by me, though. I'd hate for you to enter the theater with unrealistic expectations.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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