CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON ------------------------------
When legendary Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat, "Anna and the King") entrusts his ancient green sword to Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, "Tomorrow Never Dies") for transport to Sir Te (Sihung Lung, "Eat Drink Man Woman") in Peking, she wonders at his decision - is he finally ready to declare long unspoken emotions and settle down with her? The sword, however, is covetted by a mysterious new warrior, apparently the protege of Li Mu Bai's long time enemy Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), and is stolen on its first night in Sir Te's study. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are pulled back into the life of the swordfighter as their romance is reflected by that of a younger couple in director Ang Lee's ("Sense and Sensibility") "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Ang Lee established himself in the filmmaking world with his Chinese trilogy of patriarchal films "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet," and "Eat Drink Man Woman." He then further proved himself with three wildly different English language speaking films, "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil." Now he tries his hand at the Chinese martial arts genre he grew up with and delivers an epic entertainment that may very well cross over from the art house to American multiplexes.
The story (screenplay by Hui-Ling Wang ("Eat Drink Man Woman), James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai) contains all the elements of a genre romantic fantasy adventure. There's a fantastic sword, not unlike a Jedi knight's light saber, whose owner has developed mixed feelings for after years of bloodshed. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien's love is clear for all to see, yet long denied by themselves (for noble reasons, of course, as she was once betrothed to his brother who was killed in action). A new fighter emerges in a most unexpected guise, Jen Yu (newcomer Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of an aristrocat promised in an unwanted arranged marriage. Jen is caught between a natural inclination towards good and the evil that is her governess/teacher - the infamous Jade Fox. Her lover is Lo (Chen Chang, "Happy Together"), a gypsy bandit who once had the audacity to attempt to steal her hair comb. The flashback which fills in the history of Jen and Lo's romance is one of the highlights of the film - sexy, funny, touching and of course, full of action.
The screenplay delivers with several story lines intermingled, all evoking the full spectrum of human emotion. Of course, the story is studded with numerous action sequences, featuring the balletic fight choreography of Yen Woo-Ping ("The Matrix"). While most of his work is exemplary (particularly the fights between Jen and Yu Shu), I found the 'flying' sequences a bit too fantastical. Skipping over water and fighting atop a bamboo forest work, but the rest of the action would have been better served a bit more earthbound. Cinematography by Peter Pau ("The Bride with White Hair") captures the action while also broadening scope to capture breathtaking scenery in both green, misty mountain terrain and sun scorched deserts. Tim Squyres' editting is top notch. The film is gorgeously scored by Tan Dun, featuring the work of celloist Yo Yo Ma.
Michelle Yeoh should be receiving some serious attention for a Best Actress nomination. Her subtle work here is heart breaking and the most compelling in the film. On the opposite end of the scale, Chen Chang ("Happy Together") gives a rousingly endearing performance as the sexy, good hearted bandit Lo, while newcomer Ziyi Zhang demonstrates she's got the moves. Chow Yun Fat is a bit hampered by the legendary status of his character, to which he brings enormous nobility. Sihung Lung ("Eat Drink Man Woman") is humorously sage as Sir Te.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has something for everyone. It's a huge film by a director who must now be regarded as a world class auteur.
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