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CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (Wo hu zang long)(director: Ang Lee; screenwriters: James Schamus/Wang Hui Ling/Tsai Kuo Long/based on the novel by Wang Du Lu; cinematographer: Peter Pau; editor: Tim Squyres; Music:Tan Dun;cast: Chang Chen (Lo), Chow Yun Fat (Li Mu Bai), Cheng Pei-Pei (Jade Fox), Lung Sihung (Sir Te), Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu Lien), Zhang Ziyi (Jen Yu); Runtime: 120; Sony Pictures Classics; 2000-Hong Kong/Taiwan/U.S.)
“The cast was superb.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Taiwanese born Ang Lee returns to making a film in Chinese, with Mandarin subtitles, after making three English-language pictures over the last five years. Lee has reached back to his childhood memories of the Hong Kong action films he enjoyed watching as a child to come up with this marvelously delightful martial arts film. It is a film that seems to be made in an effortless and graceful manner, and with cinematographer Peter Pau’s camera ably capturing the way 18th-century China must have looked. Pau also breathtakingly follows the lightning-quick action scenes, which made Crouching Tiger so visually beautiful. It is also graced with martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping’s tremendous arrangement of some of the most spectacular fight scenes ever seen in any martial arts film. An added treat was the enjoyable weepy cello music in the background from the popular classical master Yo-Yo Ma. The musical arranger for the original score is Tan Dun.

In the first 20 minutes the film slowly builds up the story without any action sequences as we see a master Wudan warrior the quietly sober, noble and world-weary wise man, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat). He has returned from his meditation retreat in the mountains to tell his trusted female accomplice and the one whom he has long-suppressed his love for, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who is living in a remote compound, that it is time that he give up his favorite fighting sword, which goes back 400-years, the Green Destiny — which he wants her to give as a gift to an old acquaintance, Sir Te (Lung Sihung), by taking it to him in Peking.

The action takes place suddenly when Shu reaches Peking, as a shadowy black-clad figure pressed against the night sky steals the Green Destiny and escapes by scaling a wall and is flying over rooftops and bouncing up from the ground in various action sequences that defy gravity. All the time she is battling the guards in pursuit, while being fruitlessly chased by Shu in a staged fight scene that had the elegance of a ballet.

A complex plot develops from a simple story after this playful theft, with many twists built around the call for revenge. Also, there is the kind of spirituality intermeshed with two very moving romances which are not normally seen in these types of films, plus sword fights and martial arts sequences that are in the same vein as those fights in “The Matrix” but even more stupendous. There’s a sense of playfulness in all the action which is counterbalanced by the overall stateliness and formality of the film.

Li has spent many years tracking the murderer of his legendary master, a witch-like woman named Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), believing she disappeared in the west but who has now been spotted as the one helping the thief escape into the house of an aristocratic governmental official. Shu will discover that the thief is the official’s pretty young daughter, the feisty, independent-minded Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who is unhappy with the arranged marriage upcoming to an aristocratic family member. She has been secretly trained from childhood to be an expert sword fighter by her masquerading governess Jade Fox, and has grown to envy the lifestyle of those freewheeling swordsmen who have the freedom to do what they want. But she is not sure if he she wants to give up her rich and secure life to be an adventurer. Yet she is tempted to.

Even though Jen is imbued with an evil nature, Li senses she has an exceptional fighting ability; and, perhaps, if given the right guidance by a true teacher, this misguided girl can be saved. He offers to train her himself, but she turns him down.

Jen is surprised by the arrival of the desert bandit who is her former lover, Lo (Chang Chen). In a flashback, their improbable but passionate romance in the Gobi desert is recaptured in full detail. But she now rejects his forbidden love.

Jen gets married to her aristocrat, only to run away with the Green Destiny again. She reappears at a remote outpost near the Tibetan border. In a Clint Eastwood like scene, reminding me of any of his Westerns he made with Sergio Leone, she single-handedly dispatches a multitude of sword-bearing fighters who challenge her in a saloon restaurant.

Leading to the climax, there is another stupendous sword fight between the two women adversaries–Jen and Shu Lien (Jen appears as either a younger version of Shu Lien or her opposite number). Li will soon enter the conflict, which results in a visually spectacular fight scene, atop a quivering forest of tall, pliant green trees, as sometimes their duel takes them atop the thin branches (filmed in the Bamboo Forest at Naji). This fight will lead to the arrival of Jade Fox to help her pupil, as Li tries to avenge his master’s death.

This cartoonlike heroic tale is a sweeping epic encompassing a bevy of the genre’s clichés which are styled in a giddy way, while tacking on a fierce fighting image for women so that they seem to be the equals of men in this sort of combat. The cast was superb. Chow Yun Fat had the soul to play such a spiritual figure and grounded the film in his heroic aura. Michelle Yeoh was up to all the physical strains of the part and added a spiritual beauty that made her restrained love for Chow Yun Fat endearing. The star of the film is Zhang Ziyi, who handled herself well in all her fight scenes convincingly besting the much stronger men even though she was such a tiny figure. Cheng Pei-Pei made for a fine witch. While Chang Chen made for a dashing bandit and a strong counterpoint to the headstrong Zhang. The script was excellently conceived by James Schamus (an Ang Lee regular contributor and a professor at Columbia), Wang Hui Ling (screenwriter for “Eat Drink Man Woman”) and film critic Tsai Kuo Jung. This dreamlike, sword-playing, romantic tale was just a lot of fun and one of the surprises of 2000, certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination as Best American and Foreign Film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”