Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

             Of the currently working film directors in world cinema, Ang Lee
     is arguably the most versatile. After completing an unofficial trilogy
     of family comedies shot in Taiwain (including the back-to-back
     Oscar-nominated foreign-language films
The Wedding Banquet (1993)
     and 1994's
Eat Drink Man Woman), he surprised many with his superb
     handling of the screen version of Jane Austen's
Sense and Sensibility
(1995) followed by the ambitious mood piece The Ice Storm (1996).
     If he stumbled somewhat attempting the action-Western genre with
       Ride With the Devil (1999), that movie still demonstrated his willingness
     to stretch his talents. Unlike many directors who seemingly get typecast
     (for example, Wes Craven in horror and Michael Bay in action-adventure),
     Lee appears determined not to repeat himself. As such, his latest feature,
      Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is yet another unlikely entry on his resume.

             Based on a novel by Wang Du Lu, it is Lee's bid to reinvigorate the
     hoariest of film genres by adding a feminist twist;
Crouching Tiger,
       Hidden Drago
n is a martial arts film with arthouse aspirations. Since
     its debut in May at Cannes through its screening on the closing night at
     the 38th New York Film Festival, however, the film has found both
     champions and detractors. That it comes close to fulfilling expectations
     is a tribute not only to Lee but to his talented cast and crew.

             With the pairing of two of the most iconic figures in martial arts
     films -- Chow Yun Fat (substituting for original choice Jet Li) and Michelle
     Yeoh -- expectations were already high. They play, respectively, Li Mu Bai
     and Yu Shu Lien, a pair of veteran star-crossed lovers who briefly reunite
     when Li decides to surrender his sword, called "The Green Destiny," as
     a gift to a powerful local official. While transporting the weapon, Yu
     encounters Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the young daughter of the provincial
     governor who faces an arranged marriage but longs for the excitement
     of kind of life embodied by Yu. Of course, the sword is stolen and Yu
     sets out to retrieve it. Suffice it to say that every possible coincidence
     is employed in order to propel the action forward.

             While the main storyline is rather banal, it is exceptionally well
     acted by the principals, particularly Ms. Yeoh, who displays her prodigious
     dramatic abilities. (That she is acting in a language completely foreign
     to her -- she doesn't speak Mandarin -- is all the more impressive.)
     Chow Yun Fat lends his charismatic presence to what is essentially a
     secondary role and he and Ms. Yeoh share the requisite screen chemistry.
     Relative newcomer Zhang Ziyi is impressive as the feisty Jen and there
     is strong support from Cheng Pei-Pei (herself a veteran of the genre) as
     a mysterious governess and Chang Chen as Lo, Jen's warrior lover. (The
     long flashback sequence that details how they met and came to be
     involved feels as if it belongs to another movie.)

             As with any martial arts film, the fight sequences are the key and
     here Ang Lee is blessed by a collaboration with Yuen Wo-Ping (best
     known to American audiences for his work on
The Matrix). The action
     scenes are among the most jaw-droppingly amazing, combining ballet
     moves with the appropriate hits and kicks. Whether it is watching Ms.
     Yeoh float over rooftops or Mr. Chow seeming to dance on treetops,
     the martial arts sequences more than meet the requirements to thrill
     audiences. (At the screening I attended, there was applause following
     the first sequences.) Still, there is a feeling that Ang Lee is slumming
     a bit, in spite of his declamations that he wanted to return to his roots.
     Yes, he has shot the film in Chinese, but the various storytelling styles
     don't exactly mesh. For all its beauty (including Peter Pau's gorgeous
     cinematography and Tan Dun's lovely score -- enhanced by the cello solos
     of Yo-Yo Ma),
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a weird hybrid that
     is trying to have it both ways -- cheesy action film and highbrow
     art-house fare. Unfortunately, the two almost but not quite come together.

                                     Rating:                B+
                                     MPAA Rating:       PG-13
                                     Running time:      120 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.