Who would have thought that a Chinese martial arts epic with dialogue completely in Mandarin would be one of the most eagerly anticipated box office releases of the 2000 holiday season? After all, the timing for Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" certainly couldn't have been better. Over the last four years, Western audiences have been gradually 'acclimatized' to the trappings of Chinese action cinema, thanks to the trailblazing efforts of John Woo ("Mission: Impossible 2"), Jackie Chan ("Shanghai Noon"), Jet Li ("Romeo Must Die"), and Chow Yun-Fat ("Anna and the King"). And in the past two years, the action choreography and style of Hong Kong cinema has been popularized by a number of Hollywood filmmakers, influencing the 'look' of films such as "The Matrix", "Charlie's Angels", and anything from the Jerry Bruckheimer movie machine. North American audiences have never been more ready.
The buzz over the joint China/Taiwan/United States production "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has been steadily gaining momentum since the film became the surprise hit at the Cannes Film Festival in February. When it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, it snagged the People's Choice Award. Now, this weekend, mainstream moviegoers get their first chance to see what all the fuss is about, as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" begins its limited run in New York and Toronto, before expanding nationwide in two weeks. And the good news is that, for the most part, this is a film that earns the praise and hype that has been showered upon it.
The story is based on the fourth installment of a series of novels written by modern Chinese novelist Wang Du Lu-- an epic penned with a flavor that combined traditional Chinese literary style with Greek tragedy. The setting is amidst the Qing Dynasty, where the theft of a powerful sword leads to a quest, bitter betrayal, and a larger-than-life face-off between good and evil. Legendary martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), weary of the blood he has spilled over the years, entrusts his most prized possession, a seemingly-invincible weapon named 'Green Destiny', to his long-time sister-in-arms Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh of "Tomorrow Never Dies"), with instructions to deliver the sword to their old friend Sir Te (Ang Lee regular Si Hung Lung from "Eat Drink Man Woman" and "The Wedding Banquet") for safekeeping.
Unfortunately, the sword is promptly stolen from Sir Te's armory, and both Mu Bai and Shu Lien set out to recover it. Their quest then brings them into direct conflict with Mu Bai's old nemesis Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei, an iconic female martial arts star of the Sixties and Seventies), as well as Jen (Zhang Ziyi of Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home"), the powerful but undisciplined governor's daughter who yearns to live the way of the sword.
In his younger Taiwan days, director Ang Lee voraciously devoured the wu shu ('fantasy swordplay') films churned out by Hong Kong movie studios, and long desired to make one of his own. It's not surprising then that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" reveres the type of films that inspired the director to get into filmmaking in the first place. Lee makes good use of the film's China locations, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing, the sun-swept Gobi Desert, and breathtaking vistas of mist-covered mountains to convey the epic scope that the story demands. Wu shu purists will notice that all the fixtures of 'old school' Chinese action cinema are well-represented here: the clipped rife-with-exposition-dialogue; the heavy posturing between would-be combatants; the extensive use of wire-work for ethereal kung-fu sequences; and the consummate plot points such as a quest, the eager-but-foolish student, forbidden love, and revenge for a slain master. Some moviegoers may find this devotion to the art-form jarring at first, as though they've stepped into a time machine, since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is certainly no slick "Matrix" set in medieval times.
However, those who have followed Ang Lee's career will know that it has been built on very personal films that detail the complexities of relationships and the conflicts that arise from them. This side of the filmmaker is also evident as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" unspools. For example, the story explores how the motivations of its three principal female characters are shaped by the demands that society has placed on women. The older but wiser Shu Lien and the younger but impatient Jen are studies in contrast, with the former regretting her years spent on the road and being honor-bound to keep silent about her love for Mu Bai, while the latter longing for martial arts adventures in the countryside, instead of being relegated to an arranged marriage that will ensure her family's place in the Royal Court. Meanwhile, Jade Fox is consumed by her hatred for Mu Bai and the Wudan martial arts academy, stemming from being rejected on the basis of her sex, a decision that was made by Mu Bai's slain master, who was also her lover. For these three women, their hearts' desires are in direct conflict with not only the obligations they must fulfill, but also a past that cannot be ignored. In the absence of the ancient Chinese setting and the martial arts, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" could have easily been something up Jane Austen's ("Emma") alley-- there's even some 'afternoon tea intrigue' thrown in for good measure.
Of course, what has thrilled audiences the most about the film are the incredible martial arts sequences that rely heavily on wirework to make the actors seemingly run up walls and glide from rooftop to rooftop. Using martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (who taught Keanu Reeves kung-fu for "The Matrix"), "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has some of the most elaborate 'wire-fu' stunts ever committed to film, including the film's opening rooftop chase through ancient Beijing to Lee's homage to "A Touch of Zen", in which a battle is fought in the treetops of a bamboo forest. If you've seen the wirework-heavy Chinese films of the Sixties and Seventies, these stunts will probably be old-hat, but audiences unaccustomed to such flourishes will be in for a treat. Unfortunately, Lee could have done a better job in committing his action sequences to film. The tight angles, dim lighting, and quick cuts that he employs sometimes make it difficult to follow the lightning-fast action. Thankfully, these issues are resolved in the film's second half, leaving plenty of 'gee-whiz' jaw-dropping stunt sequences to drool over.
To pull off such a drama- and action-heavy film, Lee corralled some of the best Chinese talent in the world today. Though Jet Li was originally in discussions for the role of Mu Bai, Lee thankfully settled on the most popular Asian actor in the world, Chow Yun-fat, whose screen presence is only exceeded by his skill as an actor. Though this is the first role in which he handles a sword, Chow masterfully delivers the physicality required of him, without neglecting the dramatic requirements of the role. Michelle Yeoh may be better known for her incredible moves in films such as "The Heroic Trio" and "Wing Chun", but in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", she exhibits her depths of acting skill by delivering a poignant performance as a heroine reluctantly caught in the middle of a simmering confrontation. However, the most remarkable performance in the film would have to be that of Zhang Ziyi, who is able to convey her character's innocence-led-astray and impatience of youth-- it's not very often you see a film where a true star is born. Finally, Cheng Pei-pei acquits herself quite well as Jade Fox, while Chang Chen ("Happy Together") is likable as Jen's unlikely lover Black Cloud.
With "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", Ang Lee has created a sumptuous feast for the eyes that is sure to please even the most jaded moviegoer. With a story rife with emotion and humanity, well-choreographed action sequences that literally defy the laws of physics, and a talented ensemble of actors, this is a film that fondly reminisces about the wu shu epics of yesteryear. If you are looking for one of the more unique and rewarding moviegoing experiences of the year 2000, you don't need to look any further.