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
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