Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ang Lee's new film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," performed in Mandarin, is a joyous two hours of all the things the wide-eyed child in us -- the part open to wonder and love and excitement and beauty and romance -- goes to the movies for. It gives us a chance to recapture the feelings generated by the first days of film a hundred years ago when the art form had just been invented, when it transported us by magic to unknown worlds, as we looked at the first films shown in storefronts for a nickel. This is a film in which beautiful people are masters of the most acrobatic martial arts; in which they chase each other by gliding up walls and across rooftops, fight amidst the topmost trunks of a bamboo forest, make love in the desert, steal a legendary sword, and die in their loved-one's arms.
Lee had come across an early-20th century Chinese novel based on an old wuxia legend, where rules of behavior are strict, but the laws of gravity don't apply. He asked his writers to make it into a film. There's barely a story to it, but like many other Chinese stories it communicates more by implication than by plot complexities. It's the story of a legendary sword, the 400-year-old Green Dynasty, which handsome, aging, legendary swordfighter Li Mu Bai (martial arts icon Chow Yun Fat, now a star in the United States), retiring from his battles, wishes to present to his local lord. Li and fellow aging legend, the beautiful Yu Shu Lien (Hong Kong martial-arts star Michelle Yeoh), who've fought side by side for many years, have always repressed their love for each other, because by convention fighters may not wed.
But the sword is stolen, and the chase is on to recover it. At the same time the exquisite, willful young Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) is being prepared for marriage to a nobleman and a life of convention. But -- a thief by night -- she has stolen the sword and wants to claim her place as a fighter.
That is all you need to know about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," because you will be bewitched by the beauty and excitement of the film. The film simply takes for granted that all the story's protagonists -- heroes, heroines and villains -- have been trained in a form of body control that allows them to leap and fly against the force of gravity, and it is a joy to watch the actors here as they sail almost to the sky. The fact that we know they were held by cables that were optically removed in editing makes no difference; we believe they can fly.
And so, obviously, does Ang Lee, for he directs these wondrously supernatural effects as though he were putting together a documentary. There is no irony here, no distancing from the action. He shows us a world of people more gifted than ourselves -- and more beautiful as well -- and we follow their lives and loves and heartbreaks and deaths as though they were our family. Lee also gives us the wit and jokes that keep the film from ever feeling too heavy for its own good. It is a romance, as 'The Three Musketeers' and 'Cyrano' are romances, and it is thrilling from beginning to end.
Lee's own career has been hard to define. Born in Taiwan and moving to America in his twenties, he made himself known here with the release of "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," both of which were nominated for Academy Awards. Then his brilliant "Sense and Sensibility" put him on Hollywood's A list. For me, his next film, "The Ice Storm," was a dull failure redeemed in part by Christina Ricci's heartbreaking performance as the daughter, but now we can throw away any reservations and go joyously to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Is it too early to predict that it will achieve instant-classic status, in the tradition of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Robin Hood?" I think not.