Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
aka Wo hu cang long
Top Ten List: #9 of 2000 (U.S. releases)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Ang Lee. Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Chang, Sihung Lung, Pei-Pei Cheng. Screenplay: Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung (based on the book by Wang Du Lu).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon deserves to be a big hit when it opens, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be. Yes, the film is in Chinese, but for all intents and purposes, Titanic and the Star Wars films could have been spoken in Farsi and audiences wouldn't have noticed. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon aspires to work as a martial arts film, a historical epic, and a mournful romantic drama, and the film scores big in all three departments. Like the musical numbers in Dancer in the Dark, the combat sequences in Crouching Tiger comprise some of the film's most stunning, freshly original moments, but they wouldn't work if the picture as a whole wasn't clicking on a palpable emotional register. The film isn't without its flaws, but they are not ultimately very damaging and will probably matter not an ounce to the diverse audiences that director Ang Lee aims, with great success, to satisfy. Look, folks, kung fu legends usually aren't my primary genre, either, but I promise this film will convert you.

The principal actors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are Li Mu-bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh), two estimable practitioners of an ancient style of kung fu that I believe is called wudan. (I hope someone who knows better will write me if I'm mucking up the details.) Li Mu Bai, wearied by years of training and fighting, and ready to train a new generation of warriors, is literally laying up his sword, a magnificent jade implement called the Green Destiny that, based on its owner's legendary status, immediately becomes a museum piece in the home of an important politician called Sir Te (Sihung Lung, the star of Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman). Yu Shu-lien, the Yeoh character, who now runs a training academy for young kung fu fighters, hand-carries the Green Destiny to Sir Te's estate, and thankfully she's still around when the sword is stolen in a midnight theft that leads to the film's first stunning fight sequence. The mysterious culprit, a quick, diminutive figure dressed all in black, leaps straight to the tops of buildings, leaps over alleys, and runs along the sides of walls, with Yu Shu-lien in quick, agile pursuit, climaxing in some dazzling hand-to-hand (and leg-to-leg, and foot-to-foot) altercations choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping, who designed the martial arts sequences for The Matrix as well as several Jackie Chan pictures.

For the first time I can remember, I am thrilled The Matrix came up, because Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon includes many of the same elements that made the Wachowski Brothers' sleek contraption such a hit without an ounce of the pretension, the paranoia, the visual clutter, or the crass character development that made The Matrix such a garbage heap. As is consistent with Chinese legend, the gravity-defying feats of these characters corresponds to their respective facility with the principles of wudan and the harmony with the earth that paradoxically enables the practitioner to defy nature's most seemingly rigid laws. Also, while Lee, photographer Peter Pau, and editor Tim Squyres make no bones about wanting to dazzle us with the fight scenes, each character's method of fighting conveys pagefuls of information about his or her personality, discipline, and motivation. As in the best action pictures from the West, the action in Crouching Tiger is not ornamental to the story. The fights are the story, or at least an indispensable element within it.

Back to the plot, at least for a moment, Yu Shu-lien soon realizes what the audience has already figured out: the thief of the Green Destiny is Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a governer visiting Sir Te's home. When Li Mu-bai arrives to help recover his allegedly retired weapon, he shares Yu Shu-lien's conviction as well as her response. These characters do not wish to destroy their young enemy, but rather to enlist her as a disciple and teach her both to elevate her skills and to use them for purer motives. (Sound familiar, George Lucas fans? Remember, this plot line is hundreds of years old!) Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh nail their characters, not only through their different varieties of athleticism (Chow's graceful heft, Yeoh's remarkably fluid dexterity) but in effectively expressing their character's operatic emotions. Ang Lee has used the word "psychology" to describe the film's approach to the middle-aged warriors, and I'm not sure that's quite the right word. We don't so much penetrate the minds of these characters as their tempers and desires, including their suppressed desire for each other, seep out of the screen. Without overplaying, Chow and especially Yeoh communicate oversized emotions, an estimable feat even for actors who aren't also turning somersaults, wielding lances, and, in the film's greatest sequence, conducting a swordfight atop ten-story bamboo trees bowing beneath the combatants' weight.

For those of you stunned that Ang Lee, who directed the Jane Austen comedy Sense and Sensibility and the Connecticut anomie drama The Ice Storm, helmed this majestic enterprise, the movie has several Lee trademarks, positive and otherwise, that verify the identity of its maker. Like both of these Engilsh-language films, as well as his earlier Chinese social comedies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon relies on the contrast between the melancholy of adults and the coltish impulses of children as its governing structure. Even as the action climaxes accumulate toward the film's end, we never forget the social circumstances of its characters, especially the thwarted desires of its women. As ever, Lee proves a much more successful director of women than of men, and he wisely (if surprisingly, considering the genre) grants his actresses center stage. Besides Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi delivers an electrifying performance as the impetuous, gifted Jen that deserves to be remembered at awards time, and Pei-Pei Cheng summons an unbelievably searing anger as Jade Fox, a violent nemesis of Li Mu Bai's ever since his wudan academy declined to accept female pupils.

The other major character is Chang Chen's Lo, a Chinese Robin Hood/Geronimo who accosts the governor's party as they cross a desert. Not only does Chang have less charisma than anyone else in the cast, the flashback sequence documenting Lo and Jen's halting, forbidden romance is a minor catastrophe. Unjustifiably long and surprisingly monotonous, the subplot feels more like a concession to generic convention than a necessary element of this film. Perhaps because Zhang Ziyi proves so gripping a presence, Lee makes the mistake of assuming that we'll follow her anywhere, resulting in about a twenty-minute span in the film's center from which I disengaged almost completely. However, once Li Mu-bai, Yu Shu-lien, Jade Fox, and the others return to the story, the film improves immeasurably and never missteps again. In fact, the recovery is so swift and definitive it's a wonder how Lee and Squyres let the pace flag so dangerously to begin with.

Also, Lee still hasn't learned how to connect his often sterling scenes into a whole that feels properly sustained. Even the best set-pieces in Crouching Tiger, which travel among a verdant jungle, an arid steppe, and a walled city, don't always feel that they belong in the same film, and local cuts and larger sequence transitions are sometimes clunky. Perhaps this tendency of Lee's is why Sense and Sensibility, which Austen constructed around occasional drama and purposefully abrupt comings and goings, still feels like the director's most fully realized film. Still, the best westerns, the best space adventures, and certainly the best martial-arts pictures often suffer from these kinds of problems, and yet the films themselves barely seem to suffer at all. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is so good, and it debuts at the end of such a dismal year, that it feels querulous and silly to ask that it be any better. Indelibly shot and emotionally immediate, the film is both culturally specific and universally accessible, a great example of what global filmmaking can produce. A

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Ang Lee
Best Adapted Screenplay: Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung
Best Foreign-Language Film
Best Cinematography: Peter Pau
Best Art Direction: Tim Yip
Best Costume Design: Tim Yip
Best Film Editing: Tim Squyres
Best Original Score: Tan Dun
Best Original Song: "A Love Before Time"

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Director: Ang Lee
Best Foreign-Language Film
Best Original Score: Tan Dun

Other Awards:
Directors Guild of America: Best Director
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actress (Zhang)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Cinematography
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Picture; Best Cinematography; Best Production Design; Best Original Score
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Foreign-Language Film; Best Cinematography
National Board of Review: Best Foreign-Language Film
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Director; Best Foreign-Language Film; Best Original Score; Best Costume Design
Satellite Awards: Best Foreign-Language Film

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