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Keep Your Eye on the 'Tiger'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2000


    'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' Zhang Ziyi gets her awe-inspiring kicks in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
(Chan Kam Chuen)
Like the warriors who effortlessly saunter up the sides of buildings, flit across rooftops and even skim across lakes, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is magnificently nonchalant about its magic.

To these ancient Chinese warriors (played by Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and others), who live in a world governed by mysticism, tradition, unseen spirits and their unswerving discipline, this gravity-defying behavior is all in a day's work.

They're as liable to astrally hop into the uppermost branches of a bamboo plant as they are to engage in polite conversation. But writer-director Ang Lee never panders to your postmodern sensibilities with coy, contemporary references. He simply invites you to take vicarious flight, mind open, no questions asked.

I recommend a fully committed leap.

Li Mu Bai (Chow) is a veteran fighter who has decided to pursue a different path. So he asks his longtime friend and fellow warrior, Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), to return his sword (named the Green Destiny) to the legendary Sir Te (Lung Sihung), an old friend of Li's father. Li also plans to pay his respects to his late master, who died at the hands of a mysterious assailant named Jade Fox.

There is something deep and romantically unresolved between Li and Shu Lien. They both know about each other's feelings, but neither has the courage (or the bad form) to voice their feelings. There's another issue, too, but we don't find out about it till later.

When Shu Lien arrives at the home of Sir Te, she meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the governor's ingenue-like daughter who'd rather become a warrior, like Shu Lien, than go through with her impending, arranged marriage. Shu Lien likes this young woman, but her newfound friendship is soon forgotten when a masked robber steals the sword.

What follows is a story too complex to fully outline. Li comes to Beijing to head the search for the Green Destiny. He and Shu Lien have several encounters with the elusive Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei) and the masked robber, but the sword remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Is this theft the work of Jade Fox? And where does Jen fit in all this? When Li and Shu Lien uncover an unrequited romance, just like theirs, between Jen and a bandit known as Lo (Chang Chen), the discovery sheds new light on everything.

The twists and turns in this story – the hidden dragon of the story, if you like – are wonderfully unpredictable. And even in the draggier sections, where you might occasionally feel lost in a sea of subtitled convolution (yes, the characters speak in Chinese – but you don't even notice, most of the time), there is something glorious always at play: the grace and power of the characters. Inspired by the wuxia pian, the Hong Kong films about martial chivalry, they are ancient comic-book creations with superpowers.

There's another western element at work, too. Filmmaker Lee (who adapted Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" for the screen) has described this movie as a cross between Bruce Lee and Jane Austen. Indeed, Jen's resistance to her wedding is classic Austen fare (an individual whose yearnings transcend class and gender); and although Li and Shu Lien are liberated by their discipline (they fight with effortless sharpness), they are romantically constrained by custom.

But surely, the greatest element in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is its aerial choreography. Working with Yuen Wo-Ping, who was the fight choreographer for "The Matrix," Lee has created the year's most visually wondrous movie; and all this without the expensive benefit of computerized, digital effects. Words cannot truly evoke the marvelous spectacle of Li and Shu Lien running across water like wingless cranes, or the remarkable martial arts ballet as Shu Lien battles her mysterious quarry from the top of a towering bamboo plant (that could hardly bear the weight of a panda). Lee has made more than an exotic yarn. He has liberated conventional moviemaking.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (PG-13, 119 minutes) – Contains swordplay, martial arts violence and sexual situations.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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