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Friday, Nov. 3, 2000

'CROUCHING TIGER'

Epic drama, with a kick


A lot of times, when reviewing films, it's easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on what a film is about and not enough on what it looks like. That would be a mistake with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which, put simply, is a joy to watch, thesheer beauty of its images serving as a reminder that our emotional and visceral reaction to film is as important as any mental engagement.

Director Ang Lee, moving back to his Asian roots after a string of American successes ("The Ice Storm," "Ride with the Devil"), has made an unabashedly visual -- and gorgeous -- film: Mist-shrouded temples perched atop emerald hills, seemingly lifted from some 14th-century scroll; dry desert winds coursing across red-rock mesas of the Gobi Desert (a landscape to rival Arizona's Monument Valley); stunning beauty Zhang Zi Yi in an ornate gown, her skin luminescent as she combs her hair by candlelight; a pair of agile warriors, gliding with weightless precision through the swaying treetops of a towering bamboo forest, in a deadly mid-air ballet.

There have been a ton of swordsman/martial-arts costume epics out of Hong Kong, but few with the consistent technical excellence, lavish production and grace to rival this one. (A notable exception was "The Ashes of Time.") What Ang Lee has done here is similar to what George Lucas did to space opera with "Star Wars," but with one big difference: Lee knows how to direct actors as well. "Crouching Tiger" is not comic-book; it's epic drama, punctuated with bursts of hyperspeed action.

Chow Yun Fat plays Li Mu Bai, a swordsman of the Wutang school, on a quest for revenge on his master's assassin, the mysterious Jade Fox (Chung Pei Pei). He is also honor-bound to suppress his feelings for his close friend and ally, Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh. Mu Bai gives Shu Lien his best sword to give to Sir Te (Lung Sihun), a respected leader to whom he seeks to show respect.

The "Green Destiny," as the sword is known, is possessed of near magical qualities: Blood doesn't stick to it, it possesses the tone of a bell and -- more importantly -- it can slice through other swords effortlessly. Shu Lien delivers the sword to Sir Te, but it is stolen in the dead of night by an agile thief, who flits from rooftop to rooftop, eluding dozens of guards and outduelling Shu Lien in an unbelievably explosive bit of combat, all flurries of fists and flying corkscrews. (No surprise, given the action choreographer was Yuen Wo Ping, whose work on "The Matrix" won him a lot of new fans.)

Mu Bai arrives to help recover the blade; he suspects the hand of Jade Fox, but Shu Lien has a hunch that it's connected to one of Sir Te's house guests, Jen (Zhang Zi Yi), a young noblewoman who's being forced into an arranged marriage by her father.

The plot, based on an epic 19th-century swordsman novel by Wang Du Lu, is convoluted, but Lee draws its contours quickly and cleanly. He ably contrasts the reserve of the older generation (Mu Bai and Shu Lien, who know their feelings, but act instead on codes of duty and honor) with the reckless passion of youth (Jen and her secret lover, the desert bandit Lo [Chang Chen]). This could have been corny in the extreme, but Lee manages to coax some great moments out of his cast, bringing some emotional resonance to this fantasy realm of larger-than-life heroes and villains.

Chow Yun Fat is about as solid as you'd expect, and he uses both his gravitas and dry sense of humor to great effect. Zhang Zi Yi has a lot of fun with her role, moving from a mask of dignity to brattish impertinence, a perfect foil to Chow and Yeoh's careworn elders. But it's Michelle Yeoh who really steals the show: Her wistful, wily, whisper-to-a-scream performance here betrays the poise and skill of a world-class star -- it's criminal that she's been relegated to chop-socky for so long. (Not that she can't kick butt with the best of 'em: she is a virtual one-woman maelstrom onscreen, and yes, it is her doing those stunts.)

"Crouching Tiger" is a film of contrasts, in performance, in imagery and -- especially -- in pacing, as Lee chose to work on the extremes of action and stasis. While so many action-adventure films these days hew to the "continuous orgasm" style of nonstop mayhem, Lee works in ebbs and flows: Succinct and poetic dialogues of thinly masked romantic regret between Mu Bai and Shu Lien are alternated with bursts of frantic combat. The action advances with the characters, and, hence, the consequences mean something, a fact which becomes painfully clear with the film's poignant finale.

On the action front, Lee manages to cross the high-speed, deftly choreographed combat of Hong Kong martial-arts flicks, with the magical and aerial wire-work of the fantasy genre. Lee keeps the fighting incredibly stylized -- and often surreal, as the Wutang fighters take running leaps that send them scampering up walls and soaring over rooftops -- while never falling into the sort of hokey-jokiness that would undermine the drama. (Although the one scene where tiny little Jen obliterates a tavern full of thugs twice her size is hilarious, especially when she slaps the ringleader silly while barely looking up from her tea.)

"Crouching Tiger," more than any other Asian film of recent years, has successfully bottled the magic that infused Kurosawa's best work, oft-cited classics like "The Seven Samurai" or "Yojimbo." This film is groundbreaking, and with a bit of luck, may even break open the market for Asian-produced blockbusters, with a distinctly Asian sensibility.

Lee's film will prove to be a tough act to follow, though, as few other directors have displayed such an ability to effortlessly mix art and entertainment. The only place to see this soon-to-be-classic is on the big screen.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" opens from Nov. 11. Dialogue in Mandarin.


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