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Movie Reviews

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

In general, if you pony up eight bucks to see a kung-fu film starring Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, you expect the action to carry the acting, even though they are two of the finer thespians in kung-fu cinema. You also expect that stars with as much wattage as Chow and Yeoh will overshadow everyone else in the film. And you hope that the film was directed by one of the masters of Hong Kong action cinema, because they're the ones who really know how to let the mayhem fly.

Well, prepare to be pleasantly surprised by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which will leave you wishing you were as cool as Chow, Yeoh or incandescent newcomer Zhang Ziyi, reeling from the emotional impact of the three stars' intense performances, and pondering the subtleties and ambiguities of what you've just seen. This is a thinking cineaste's action blowout, subtitled from the Chinese and directed by former Jane Austen adaptor Ang Lee, and its success at melding heated passion and cool violence is surprising, impressive and inspiring.

Initially, it appears that Chow and Yeoh are going to do the bulk of the work in the horrendously complicated plot, set in medieval China. Security expert Shu Lien (Yeoh) rides into Beijing, transporting a shipment of goods including the magical Green Destiny sword of renowned fighter Li Mu Bai (Chow). Li is giving this wondrous sword to a friend because he does not know if he wants to fight anymore. We do not believe that for a second, and sure enough, Li comes to Beijing soon after, looking to avenge the death of his master.

Their proximity gives Li and Shu the opportunity to reflect on their unconsummated love for each other, although their meditations are cut short when Shu meets a Yu princess named Jen (Zhang). Jen is not enthusiastic about her upcoming arranged marriage, and wants a freer life like the one Shu leads; Shu wonders if Jen might be trying out such a life when the Green Destiny is stolen. Though they do not know it at first, Li, Shu and Jen are linked by their training in the martial arts of Wudan, which not only provides the trainee with tremendous skill in wielding any kind of weapon but which also allows the trainee to defy that pesky gravity whenever he or she wishes. Complications and altercations of many, many kinds ensue.

Not much needs to be said about Chow and Yeoh. They have looked so good and fought so amazingly for so long that we have the luxury of taking their greatness for granted at this point. Suffice it to say that they meet every challenge and surpass every expectation here. The real surprise is that Zhang emerges as their equal.

Jen's transition from cutie-pie, dreamy teenager to rage-fueled, remorseless killing machine is the most precarious thing in the film, and Zhang pulls it off by playing everything with such ferocious intensity that you simply have to be convinced. Her rage, which could seem adolescent and shallow, instead grows into an overwhelming force truly worthy of Chow and Yeoh's opposition. Like Chow and Yeoh, she has cold determination in her eyes when she settles in to fight, but Jen needs an additional wild-eyed, savage desperation, which Zhang provides to chilling effect. And she can handle a sword like no one's business.

Anyone who watched Lee's lackluster "Ride with the Devil" will wonder how Lee finally succeeded at his mission of bringing emotion to action. This film retains "Ride with the Devil"'s lovely feel for landscape and careful, poised handling of even the most volatile conversations, which certainly do not hurt. But the real secrets of his success are that Zhang Ziyi is starring instead of Tobey Maguire and Yuen Wo Ping (of "Matrix" renown) choreographed the fights instead of Ang Lee. Yuen provides numerous stunning fights wherein the implications of the Wudan flight training are meticulously explored, including a hushed, glorious treetop battle between Chow and Zhang which will put you in awe once again of what cinema can do.

With this serendipitous division of labor, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" becomes a film in which Zhang can convincingly fall in love with a desert bandit named Lo (Lee) by repeatedly kicking his ass (Yuen). The sense of loss that all the main characters share is always palpable; the fact that they express it both in hushed conversations and bruising battles seems only right and proper.

There's not space enough to catalogue all of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"'s glories here, but one scene commands particular attention. Jen and Shu have had a falling-out, and to cement it Jen challenges Shu to a battle - Jen holding the Green Destiny, Shu using any weapon she chooses. Shu consistently backs Jen down, but the Green Destiny always slices through Shu's weapons at the last moment, as Zhang's wonderful eyes taunt Yeoh. Finally, after the magic sword saves Jen once more, Shu snarls, "Without the Green Destiny you are nothing." Jen smiles contemptuously, raises the sword almost wildly, and says "Come and take it from me."

Amen.

All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.