January 1, updated January 16, 2001 -- Here in the West it is the first day of the 21st century and the third millenium, but in China it's still the year of the dragon, and it may be a lucky year for Ang Lee at the academy awards with his magical martial arts epic, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wu hu zang long)."
This is the first film I have seen that combines martial arts, lush, colorful photography, a strong story line and magical effects that have people flying through the air like Peter Pan. It is a wondrous film with a lyrical, haunting beauty approaching that of a Kurosawa film. It hasn't played in Laramie yet, but that may change on February 2, when the number of available prints expands to 1,000. I saw it in Denver.
You know the problem with most martial arts films: Jerky action, bad dubbing, incomprehensible plots, no character development. This movie avoids those problems. It also has strong roles for women, a rarity in this genre. Director Ang Lee ("The Ice Storm," "Sense and Sensibility") is a newcomer to the genre, but he masters it on the first attempt. Adding a dash of sorcery (another Chinese tradition) and comedy to the usual mix of violence and melodrama, he comes up with a classic.
Chow Yun Fat ("Anna and the King") stars as master swordsman Li Mu Bai, possessor of a sword with almost magical powers called the Green Destiny. Weary of violence, he sends the Green Destiny to an old friend, Sir Te (Sihung Lung) for safekeeping. He heads back to Wudan Mountain to pay his respects to his late master. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh of "Tomorrow Never Dies") a professional bodyguard, and old friend of Li Mu Bai, is given the task of delivering the sword. Not long after delivering the sword, all kinds of trouble breaks loose. An old nemesis shows up, the notorious Jade Fox (played by Pei-pei Cheng) aided by a mysterious and powerful warrior intent on stealing the sword. The warrior has also stolen the secret of the Wudan fighting techniques.
Another key character, Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), daughter of a powerful politician, shows up on the scene. Shu Lien suspects that Jen is somehow involved in the shady goings-on in Sir Te's house. Another key character, the bandit Lo, enters the story as well. There are lots of sword fights, and even some love scenes. The story sweeps from cities to forests to deserts in epic scale. The fight scenes are wondrous, staged by fight choreographer Yuen Wo ping of "The Matrix." In most martial arts films, the action comes to a halt between blows. In this film, the action flows smoothly like ballet. The cinematography by Peter Pau is exquisite, capturing the lush color of the location shots. The production and costume design by Tim Yip is also first-rate. Lee's direction and Tim Squyres' editing are also top notch. The hauntingly beautiful original music is composed by Tan Dun. The theme song is by Coco Lee.
The story is adapted from a novel of the same name written by Du Lu Wang prior to World War II. It is an attempt to marry martial arts with Taoist philosophy. The story is a bit long, with one romance that seems barely tangential to the rest of the plot. The plot is solid for the most part, although there is one scene where two of the characters start fighting for no good reason (common in the martial arts genre). The principle actors are all excellent, with Michelle Yeoh being the real standout. Her previous martial arts movie experience as well as her background in ballet make her very convincing as a mature, confident, independent woman, and a graceful and powerful fighter. Chow Yun Fat plays the strong, silent type very well, but makes the most of his one emotion-filled scene. Zhang Ziyi is very beautiful, but is not very convincing as a martial arts powerhouse.
This is one of the best films of the year 2000. It will make my top 10 list. It is certainly one of the best films of the Hong Kong martial arts genre ever made. It reminds me of the best of the Hollywood westerns, like "High Noon," and "The Unforgiven." The best westerns transcended the genre, as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" transcends its genre to take on larger issues. Like westerns, this film is set in a largely mythical past, completely removed from the more troubling aspects of modern civilization. It is a place, like the old west, where there are heroes and villains and where disputes are settled quickly in battle. Like the best westerns, sometimes villains aren't really villains after all. Sometimes, the better angels of their natures are unbound through sacrifice. This film rates an A.
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