If you thought the only real place for gravity-defying fight scenes was The Matrix, think again. One of today’s most diverse directors, Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm), has not only found the perfect venue for such combat – the classic samurai movie – but has injected his action with poetry and meaning. In Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, stars like Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh gracefully zip through the air in this breathtaking Chinese fable about love, loyalty, and destiny.
It’s tough not to get a kick out of this operatic movie. There’s fateful romance, legendary themes of honor and determination, strong heroines, and, oh yeah, that butt-kicking action.
The first martial arts sequence hits the screen with a bolt of energy and magic, letting you know this isn’t your father’s chopsocky movie. An ancient sword has been stolen from a respected family, and warrior Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) pursues and fights a masked female thief. The fight moves, masterfully choreographed by The Matrix‘s Woo-Ping Yuen, have the standard kung fu push-and-pull, but there’s a surge of surprise when the two women suddenly leap through the village, flying rooftop to rooftop.
It seems they are disciples of an ancient training that has elevated them to this expert fighting level. Yu Shu understands it completely, as does her love interest, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat). But the evil Jade Fox, wanted for the crime, knows only the basics, unable to comprehend the higher concepts. She carries that frustration with her, as well as the badge of having killed Li Mu’s mentor.
While that’s plenty of backstory to fill the melodrama, there’s another intertwining plotline – Jade Fox’s disciple is the beautiful Jen (Zhang Zi Yi), an aristocrat with a delicate exterior but the heart of a fighter. She’s preparing to marry into wealth, but dreams of a time when she too was a lonely warrior, showing off her unbelievable fighting prowess and falling in love with pirate Lo (Chen Chang).
Lee’s stable of screenwriters has fleshed out a grand tale that does justice to the genre, but would have been helped by more clarity. The storylines are so splayed in the film’s middle that confusion is the occasional result, as the writing team (whose only credits are Lee movies, by the way) tries to overstuff a film that doesn’t need the padding.
That being said, nearly everything else about the movie is a real wonder, especially the stupendous action sequences. The rigid, whip-fast martial arts moves reach an otherworldliness when the fighters begin leaping and flying. The smooth whirling of arms and legs brings a gorgeous fluidity to the scenes, and Lee’s well-timed camera moves create yet another level of motion. That early battle even struck a few cries of ‘Whew!’ out of a small audience of hard-ass critics.
Cinematographer Peter Pau adds his own dreamlike quality to the sequences by bathing the night in a blue moonlit glow, and Tim Yip’s design makes you feel as if you could step right into an ancient village or desert cave hideaway. Give additional credit to Lee for his perfect casting – Chow and Yeoh impart nobility and experience (the younger Jet Li was originally pegged for Chow’s role), and Zhang and Chen Chang possess the energy and intensity needed for their demanding parts. All four handle the physical work like soldiers, and regardless of your preference, they sure are easy on the eyes. As young Jen wanders the countryside in the middle of the film, if you haven’t already fallen in love with her, you will when she brazenly kicks the crap out of an entire restaurant.
One of the film’s later centerpieces is a perfect reflection of its beauty – two of our heroes swordfight among the wispy treetops, soaring and climbing to the quiet strains of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It combines an ancient style of combat, a futuristic feel, and a fateful story of love and need. If you can’t find something in this movie to set your heart aflutter, call the doctor.
Aka Wu Hu Zang Long.