Martialed Arts

Using menace, mortality and lots of gravity-defying stunts, director Ang Lee delivers a well-crafted adventure tale with stunning visuals

January 12, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Rarely has combat been portrayed as beautifully as in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Taiwanese director Ang Lee's thoughtful meditation on menace, mortality and the martial arts.

Resolutely Eastern in its attitudes and sentiments, "Crouching Tiger" uses a visual style borrowed from "The Matrix" to create a world where women warriors battle across roofs, where treetops serve as arenas for combat, where gravity is defied with regularity. The effect is nothing short of stunning - it's as if Peter Pan had become a samurai.

But to Lee's credit, his movie is more than just a visual feast. It's also a carefully constructed adventure yarn wedded to a coming-of-age story line, with a little bit of "Unforgiven" thrown in. And while the narrative tends to wander at times, the overwhelming dignity of the screenplay by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung (adapting Wang Du Li's novel) never falters.

Better yet, the film never stoops to cheap sentiment or takes the easy way out of the conflicts it so lovingly crafts.

And did I mention that it's a hoot to watch? There are legs flying, swords thrusting, sharp-bladed metal stars slicing through the air; people getting thrashed with great aplomb, then bouncing back to do some thrashing of their own. This is about as cool as the law allows a film to be.

The great Chow Yun-Fat, who with every film proves why he's among the biggest box-office draws on the planet, is Li Mu Bai, a legendary martial artist who's decided the time has come to retire and finally find some peace.

His fellow warrior and longtime friend - and, judging by the sparks that fly between them, former lover - Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) isn't quite buying it. But when Li hands her his sword, the Green Destiny, a lethal and legendary blade, with instructions that she present it to a mutual friend in Beijing, she believes him.

And so the two set off on their respective journeys, Li to pay respects to his late Master (and possibly, before he gives up fighting for good, avenge his death), Shu Lien to Beijing. Once there, she hands over the sword as promised, even though their friend is reluctant to accept it.

It turns out his reluctance was well-founded, for the sword is quickly stolen by a masked martial artist whose skills are on a level with Shu Lien's. It's during their fight, as Shu Lien tries to retrieve the sword, that we get our first look at the film's dazzling martial arts sequences. The two adversaries skitter up trees and over roofs, seemingly propelled by nothing but the wind, all the while unleashing lethal kicks and wielding some decidedly menacing hardware.

Although no one got a good look at the thief, evidence suggests it was a criminal of longstanding renown known as Jade Fox - who happens also to be the female warrior who killed Li's Master. This brings Li back into the picture and sets up a confrontation between the old enemies.

Meanwhile, Shu Lien has been developing a mentor relationship with Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a local politician. The teen-ager has promised to marry a long-time suitor favored by her father but confesses that she secretly longs for the warrior life her new friend represents. Shu Lien tries to dissuade Jen, assuring her there's little glamour or romance about such an existence.

Jen, however, may be more ready to become a warrior than anyone realizes.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" stumbles a bit with its opening, which suggests the focus of the story will be on the two older warriors, when in reality the real center of the story is Jen's fate. But such concerns are crowded out by the film's pervasive sense of wonder, mystery and honor.

`Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Directed by Ang Lee

Released by Sony Pictures

Rated PG-13 (Violence)

Running time 120 minutes (in Mandarin, with English subtitles)

Sun score *** 1/2

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