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Review: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

By Simma Park

Chow Yun Fat as Li Mu Bai
Chow Yun Fat as Li Mu Bai

Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien

Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien

Zhang Zi-Yi as Jen

Zhang Zi-Yi as Jen

Zhang Zi-Yi and Chang Chen

Zhang Zi-Yi and Chang Chen

Zhang Zi-Yi and Michelle Yeoh

Zhang Zi-Yi and Michelle Yeoh

Zhang Zi-Yi and Chang Chen

Zhang Zi-Yi and Chang Chen

Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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NEW YORK, 20 January 2001 - According to the hype around Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, its creators have produced a miracle: a kung fu crossover hit, simultaneously a substantial foreign language drama for discerning art house audiences and the greatest martial arts movie of all time. Although Crouching Tiger falls short of such (probably unattainable) perfection, it is enormously fun, and manages to be one of the more interesting films of recent years. Whatever its flaws, it is also a rare example of fearless yet thoughtful experimentation by veteran filmmakers, in this case Ang Lee and James Schamus, who have previously collaborated on films in both Taiwan and the United States, including Eat Drink Man Woman and The Ice Storm.

Though nominally set in the Qing dynasty, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is loosely based in a Chinese martial arts movie tradition that pits outlaws against heroes in a timeless "long ago" analogous to the American cinematic Old West. The Wuxia, warrior figures who embody honor, loyalty, and an individual sense of justice, can be compared to the white-hat guys; Wuxia stories gave rise to what Ang Lee has called "a mythical, larger-than-life hero in the Chinese imagination," and an equally powerful myth of the Giang Hu world, an imagined "Wild West" underworld or outland, inhabited by the Wuxia and governed primarily by their noble ideals, with little regard for conventional mores.).

Basing the screenplay on a series of novels by early 20th century novelist Wang Du Lu, Lee and co-writer Schamus people the simplistic Giang Hu world with complex characters whose actions result from a murky grapple with the tension between their needs as human beings and the demands that the Giang Hu world, as lived or imagined, place upon them. As the film opens, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), the greatest swordsman in China and famed disciple of the Wudan martial arts system, has realized that the years spent fighting outlaws and striving for enlightenment have left him lonely and unhappy. He is on the verge of renouncing his life as a warrior to try to find happiness with his beloved friend and former comrade-in-arms Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). As the film opens, he commits to the custody of longtime friend Sir Te his legendary sword, the beautiful, invincible Green Destiny, and is on the point of proposing to Shu Lien, who clearly shares his feelings, that they make a life together.

His plans are interrupted by the reappearance of old foe Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), who betrayed and murdered Mu Bai's master and stole the secret manual of Wudan's techniques. Resurfacing in Beijing, Jade Fox has become the governess of Yu Jen (Zhang Zi Yi), the daughter of a prominent government official. Slated for a loveless political marriage, Jen longs for any escape-into the remote deserts of her former home province; into an imagined world based on adventure tales, drawn from the real lives of warriors like Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien; into the arms of her secret love, a dashing barbarian bandit named Lo (Chang Chen).

Her secret restlessness makes her vulnerable to manipulation by Jade Fox, but what makes her dangerous is her other secret: she is a martial arts prodigy of enormous potential. Half-trained by Jade Fox using the stolen Wudan manual, Jen has much of the technique but none of the Taoist philosophy; but even in this state she is a match for our heroes. Fascinated by the Giang Hu world (and her taste of it in her interlude with Lo), inspired by meeting Shu Lien, tempted by the now-idle Green Destiny, and poisoned by the influence of Jade Fox, Jen is a loose cannon, a menace to all those around her.

Li Mu Bai, the embodiment of the Wuxia ideal, naturally wants revenge upon Jade Fox for her crimes against his master and his school; more than this, though, he wishes to take Jen as disciple to be Wudan's first female student - largely because without Wudan discipline she will surely become a villain far worse than her mistress. Shu Lien also comes to feel a sisterly affection for the young prodigy. Setting aside their personal needs, Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien take on Jade Fox in a struggle over the girl's fate, as the chaos swirling around her threatens to ensnare them all.

True to its title, which names the animal pair most commonly representative of the contradictory and complementary principles of yin and yang in Taoist and Buddhist symbolism, the movie concentrates on the interaction of opposing forces. The consequences of impetuously pursuing one's desires contrast with the loss and regret that are the reverse of restraint and duty. The naive certainty of youth is weighed against the ambiguities of maturity. Jen's coming of age is juxtaposed against the mid-life conflict within Li Mu Bai. All of the main characters much decide when to fight to control their lives and when to acquiesce before forces that cannot be altered.

The actors are well cast, and director Ang Lee coaxes great performances from most of them. As Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien, Chow and Yeoh smolder with their characters' repressed passions. The actors incorporate the spirit of swordplay in their performances and alternate between slow, taut exchanges and lightning flashes of intense emotion. They likewise maintain character through their fighting sequences, in which Yeoh's Shu Lien moves with confident virtuosity, and Chow's Li Mu Bai, the accomplished master, needs to use only the sparest, most efficient techniques. These megastar veterans of Hong Kong and Hollywood fearlessly play up their maturity, imbuing their performances with an exquisite sense of loss; the curious result is that they have never seemed sexier.

Zhang Zi Yi is ravishingly pretty as the confused and tormented Jen, and her background in dance helps her execute dazzling fight scenes and wire work. Comparisons to established Chinese actress Gong Li may well be justified, however; Zhang's performance, failing at times to arouse sympathy, makes her seem more cold and spoiled than anything else. Martial arts fans will be thrilled to see women's action pioneer Cheng Pei Pei's return to the screen as Jade Fox in her first role as a villain. Chang Chen, whom American audiences may remember from Wong Kar-Wai's wistful Happy Together, makes a dashing and likeable barbarian Lo. Fans of Ang Lee's Taiwanese family-focused dramas will appreciate Lung Sihung's short but memorable appearance as Sir Te, patron and friend to Shu Lien and Mu Bai.

Controversial wire work

On the martial arts front, Yuen Wo-Ping's choreography and direction are as skillful as his best Hong Kong work, though not as original. Crouching Tiger, his first collaboration with Ang Lee, rightly leans more toward the lyricism of Yuen's work with Jet Li than the clever, often comic spontaneity of his Jackie Chan films. While surprise may be lacking, the unrivaled clarity and dance-like beauty of his choreography should more than satisfy even the most demanding martial arts buff. Those in the know will find plenty of poetry in motion to admire, including a brief whirling exchange of sweeps and jump kicks that constitute three seconds of martial arts ecstasy and one particular knock-down drag-out fight in which Michelle Yeoh pulls out all the stops and wields a dizzying array of kung fu weapons both familiar and bizarre.

Zhang Zi-Yi

Though wire work is controversial among martial arts movie fans, Crouching Tiger relies heavily on it and attains new heights of artistry in its use. Action sequences using wires are an acquired taste, and they will likely elicit giggles from those new to it and groans from those who oppose their use. Though Chow, who is new to both kung fu acting and wire work, suffers some unfortunate moments of awkwardness, the sheer scope of the wire work and the skill with which it is executed by both actors and technicians should earn the admiration of even the least wire-friendly viewers. Though some scenes verge on silly, many are rendered magical by the peculiar quality that wires lend to the actors' movements.

Perhaps the film's most radical departure from the martial arts genre lies in the beautiful and polished frame provided by cinematographer Peter Pau and soundtrack composer Tan Dun. Together, they cultivate an imaginary China that is at once lush and ethereal. Pau, whose extensive experience includes many Chow Yun Fat vehicles as well as such visually innovative kung fu flicks as Swordsman and The Bride With White Hair, provides us with stunning backdrops that capture the forbidding beauty of wild frontiers, the meditative tranquility of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, and the cosmopolitan majesty of Beijing during the prosperous days of the Qing dynasty. One does wish, however, that Pau and the film's editors could have backed off the fight sequences, where Yuen's and the actor's efforts at times seemed obscured by unnecessary cropping and editing.

Tan Dun's soundtrack featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a stirring blend of classical and world music, and its judicious use enhances both Pau's otherworldly vistas and the actors' performances. CoCo Lee's love ballad, though pleasant enough as a pop fluff marketing aid, obviously has no place in Crouching Tiger. (It is wisely saved for the end credits, where its mood-shattering properties can be used to clear the audience out of the theater.)

Aside from CoCo's jarring pop ballad, a few other elements could have benefited from a second thought. For example, even those unfamiliar with Mandarin may realize that Jen's name is not, in fact, "Jen" as it is written in the subtitles, but another two-syllable name that sounds nothing like Jen, a small detail that becomes increasingly distracting as the movie goes on. (An elaborate play on words is lost in the translation - Jen's real name sounds like the Mandarin word for "dragon", and Lo's echoes the word for "tiger.") In addition, a subplot involving the daughter of a police inspector murdered by Jade Fox is simply dropped half way through the film. One suspects that her fate, as well as most of Lung Sihung's undoubtedly fine performance as Sir Te, was left on the cutting room floor.

The film's greatest shortcoming, however, is the inconsistency of its tone. Lee, in his ambition to reconcile the opposing forces of arthouse and kung fu theater produces less a marriage of the two genres than a duel. The result is a film that sometimes jerks unevenly between emotional exposition and physical battles, and careens between melodrama and psychological subtlety, grave showdowns and campy brawls. Ironically enough, the film, like its main characters, is waylaid by conflicting desires and tendencies as it struggles to find its path. Thanks to the excellence of its cast and production crew, the film, like the characters within it, manages to attain moments of grace, especially the purposefully ambiguous ending which, consistent with the Taoist themes in its subject matter, defies hard and fast interpretation.

Though Lee has not produced the be-all and end-all of crossover films, he has successfully spliced and grafted genres to create cinematic gold: a film that appeals on some level to just about everyone. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a subtitled arthouse period melodrama that has the wine-and-cheese crowd cheering on kung fu fighters and a martial arts epic that inspires action junkies to amateur psychology. Lee chooses to participate in a male-dominated action tradition but lets inspirational and three-dimensional female characters dominate his contribution. He also conjures two-plus hours of sheer fun that offers insight into the Tao. The film may or may not blow the viewer's mind, but it will heartily entertain almost all audiences, regardless of their taste in movies.

Three stars

Simma Park is a writer and martial arts student living in New York.

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