Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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By Gabriel Jinich

Ever since the world first became aware that director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, The Ice Storm) was making a martial arts action film, expectations were set on high. When it premiered at Cannes outside official competition, it was praised by critics as far superior to any of the competing films. Even before gathering 10 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture, Best Foreign Film and Best Director), "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" had built so much hype around it that it was doomed to disappoint audiences expecting the best action drama ever made (which it's not). That said, this Chinese fairy-tale is still a movie unlike anything you have ever seen before.

Much has been said about the action scenes, which indeed are incredible only if you don't have a problem with otherwise hyper-realistic characters suddenly flying through the air. Choreographed by the man who did "The Matrix" but shot by the director of "Sense and Sensibility", the fights are a gratifying mixture of adrenaline-pumping physicality and aesthetically gorgeous ballet. Yet despite their artistic or ass-kicking content, fight scenes a movie make not.

The heart of "Crouching Tiger" is the immediacy of its plot, the story of three generations of women and the way they deal with the pressures of a society dominated by men. Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), an elder warrior who in her youth was denied entrance, despite her skills, to a legendary but men-only warrior school, decides to take revenge; Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who cannot consummate her love with fellow warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) because it would dishonor the memory of her dead fiancÚ, stoically accepts her fate; and Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the freedom-loving, idealistic daughter of a local governor, flees her arranged marriage and discovers her powers in the art of war. Linking the three threads, as well as several other sub-plots, is the central story-line: the quest by Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien to recover a powerful stolen sword called the Green Destiny. Along the way, Ang Lee paints a complex canvas of relationships, honor, love, purpose, and fate.

Whether the story grabs you or not (and quite frankly, there are enough moments of silliness---including the ending---to lose some the more demanding viewers) all the elements of filmmaking are so skillfully rendered that the picture is ultimately very satisfying. The photography (shot on location in several gorgeous Chinese sites) is beautiful, as is the production design and the score (Yo-Yo Ma supplies the haunting cello solos). Fans of Chow-Yun Fat won't be disappointed either (he's as utterly cool flying through the air while welding a sword as he is shooting his way through a John Woo bullet fest), and both Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi give very moving performances. But what is most impressive about "Crouching Tiger" is that in every single scene and every single shot we feel the energy and passion with which the film was made. This is obviously a very personal work for Lee, and he and his producers took a great risk in making it. Let the incredible response the film has garnered be further proof that Ang Lee is a consummate, diverse artist who can pull off whatever he sets his sights on.