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"CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON"
(2000) (Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Drama: Two longtime martial arts masters and friends try to prevent a young woman from following a villainous female assassin over to the dark side as they battle with both of them over the girl's future and a legendary, 400-year-old sword.
PLOT:
Long ago in China, Li Mu Bai (CHOW YUN-FAT) is a martial arts master who has literally decided to hang up his sword, the 400-year-old Green Destiny, and has asked his longtime friend and associate, Yu Shu Lien (MICHELLE YEOH), to deliver it to Sir Te (LUNG SIHUNG), an elderly and respected leader in Beijing. Shu Lien is reluctant to do so, but finally agrees, while Li heads off to Wudan Mountain so that he can pay respects to his late master who was poisoned by a female assassin known as the Jade Fox (CHENG PEI PEI).

Arriving at Sir Te's home, Shu Lien meets Jen (ZHANG ZIYl) the apparently na´ve but nevertheless aristocratic daughter of Governor Yu (LI FA ZENG), a prominent political figure. Jen isn't happy about her pending arranged marriage, and is fascinated and envious of Shu Lien's seemingly free life as a martial arts warrior.

That night, a masked figure steals the Green Destiny from Sir Te's compound, and despite the efforts of Shu Lien and Sir Te's chief security officer, Bo (GAO XIAN), to stop that, the thief gets away with the sword. An investigation gets under way and Police Inspector Tsai (WANG DE MING) and his daughter May (LI LI) believe the theft to be the work of none other than the Jade Fox.

Shu Lien has her own suspicions and begins to question Jen and test both her knowledge and abilities, stopping short of accusing her of the theft. Yet, as both Li and Jen's past lover, Lo (CHANG CHEN), arrive on the scene, the stage is set for surprising revelations and high octane martial arts battles as longtime grudges and fierce passions come to a head.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
We've all met some person in our lives who came off as rather attractive, funny and/or intelligent only to then have that illusion shattered by some fault such as chewing food with their mouth open or habitually scratching or adjusting areas that one normally doesn't scratch or adjust in public. Likewise, you've probably bought something in the past - such as a home, car or computer - only to find that it contained some flaw that diminished your overall view and appreciation of the product.

Certainly, you've watched a film or TV show that seemed good or maybe even great until some development occurred - often at or near the end - that might not have ruined the experience, but clearly lowered your opinion of it. If not, there's a new film in town that may just provide you with that experience, although you won't have to wait until the end of it to do so.

Its name is "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and while it's receiving all sorts of accolades from the critics and art house crowds, it will be interesting to see just how mainstream moviegoers react to this film. Some will sense a potential conundrum right from the onset when they hear or realize that the director of films such as "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm" is helming a high-octane, martial arts flick.

That's not the inherent problem, however, as many filmmakers have successfully transcended genres, and director Ang Lee clearly knows his way around a camera, film set and his stars, and demonstrates that here. It's just that during the film's first extravagant fight scene - which occurs some fifteen or twenty minutes into this seemingly reserved, but sumptuous looking, subtitled period drama - a character suddenly lifts off up into the air and scampers along walls and from one rooftop to the next like Peter Pan, defying gravity as if the Qing dynasty had established a colony on the moon.

It's a literal leap of faith that Lee's taking and a crucial litmus test/make it or break it point where viewers must decide whether this completely unexpected development is akin to a wonderful, fantasy-induced flight of fancy or a serious miscalculation that will confound if not yank them completely out of the proceedings.

Unfortunately, and unlike most of my fellow critics, I fell into the latter group as I simply didn't buy into this updated use of the old wire-fighting technique that's been used for years in Asian martial arts films and recently popularized to mainstream viewers in films such as "The Matrix" and "Charlie's Angels."

Simply put, performers are rigged to harnesses and wires - which are later digitally erased - that allow them to jump, summersault, scale walls and lift off the ground like Cathy Rigby in gravity-defying moves that simply don't look realistic.

In some films, such techniques are somewhat acceptable, especially if the "ground rules" are set up to allow viewers to expect or at least accept the possibility of such developments. In "The Matrix," it worked because its world was completely made up, where anything was possible. It was tolerated in "Charlie's Angels" simply because that film made no pretense of being anything but a stupid, but enjoyable, over-the-top experience.

Here, however, and notwithstanding the critics and art house fanatics who will pronounce it dreamlike and exhilarating (or any number of other praiseworthy adjectives), it just doesn't work, especially within the confines and context of most of the rest of the story. Yes, I understand the film is supposed to evoke the feeling of some old Chinese legend, fable or fantasy, where such feats would not only be possible, but also accepted as the norm.

The biggest problem, though, is that flying people just don't look realistic - be they in the upright or traditional Superman flying pose - simply because, well, since people don't fly. It's the same as feline tap dancers, elephant dentists or choirs of singing koala bears simply not being acceptable, since the sight of that contradicts thousands of years of archetypal programming in our brains. It certainly doesn't help that the performers and technicians don't sell the flying look. When the characters fly through the air with their feet still moving and/or shuffling, the effect is even decidedly less than convincing.

Here, the "against nature" development is worse since the film starts off like a serious, subtitled period piece looking and feeling something akin to "The Last Emperor" or "Gandhi." Imagine Pu Yi climbing the walls of the Forbidden City like Spiderman or the Mahatma suddenly soaring into the skies and you'll begin to get a feel for how jarring this development truly is.

Thankfully, it's not a crippling problem, but it certainly takes a lot of wind and credibility out of the film's sails. If not for such moments - that manifest themselves in other forms during the film including skipping across water or fighting while perched atop swaying tree branches that could barely hold a squirrel, let alone a human being - the film would receive higher marks.

Fortunately, the other earthbound martial arts moments - choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping (who also contributed his duties to "The Matrix" and directed "The Legend of Drunken Master") - are very impressive. Some also play off the time-honored moments in other martial arts films, such as the hero - or in this case, heroine - who fights off a horde of troublemakers while barely breaking a sweat and emoting a sense of boredom while doing so.

It's with the film's period-piece dramatics, however, where the production really excels. Few martial arts films are known for anything beyond their fighting and other action, let alone having women in the leading roles, but this one delivers superb direction, an epic-style story and stellar performances from both a physical and thespian standpoint, where the main characters are female, rather than male.

That's not to say that it has an overzealous, feminist slant, or that it's a boring, stuffy or solemn experience. The strong and prominent female characters are actually a welcomed variation from the norm and feel nothing short of credible, where the women easily hold their own - and then some - against their male counterparts. Notwithstanding the action and goofy low/zero gravity material, there are also some decent laughs to be had.

Nevertheless, the film's more dramatic moments and performances are what give the film the necessary heart and kick, if you will, to grab the viewer and pull them into the proceedings. Sumptuously photographed by cinematographer Peter Pau ("The Bride With White Hair," "A Fishy Story") and boasting Oscar worthy production and art design, the film has a stately and dignified feel that's only enhanced by the solid performances. It also has a surprising amount of resonance, especially for a martial arts film, although this one certainly shouldn't be pigeonholed into only that genre.

A tale of misbegotten and unfulfilled love, honor and the thematic issue off all the characters being prisoners of one sort of another, the story is sweeping in nature and clearly benefits from the performances of Chow Yun-Fat ("Anna and the King," "The Replacement Killers"), Michelle Yeoh ("Tomorrow Never Dies," "Supercop") and relative newcomer Zhang Ziyi ("The Road Home"). Not only do they collectively impress from a physical standpoint, but they also craft interesting and compelling personas out of their characters.

Beyond some missteps here and there - including a flashback sequence that goes on a bit too long without enough substance, beyond some character exposition, to warrant its length - screenwriters James Schamus ("Ride With the Devil," "The Ice Storm"), Wang Hui Ling (co-writer of "Eat Drink Man Woman") and Tsai Kuo Ju (a Taiwanese film critic) - who work from a novel by Wang Du Lu - have fashioned a story that's both interesting and engaging.

It's just too bad that Lee opted to include the Peter Pan/Superman inspired wire fighting stunts into this film. I've never personally cared for them even in traditional martial arts films. That's because they usually come off as a misguided attempt to enhance the fight scenes that are usually impressive enough that they don't need any supplemental assistance.

While some may see them here as adding to the fable/fantasy type aura that permeates much of the film, they'll just as likely end up distracting, if not alienating some viewers. Although they don't occur throughout the film and one gets somewhat acclimated to their use once the "What in the world?" shock value somewhat diminishes, such moments do enough damage, at least in my opinion, to prevent the film from being as good as it could have been.

Armed with such knowledge of their presence and a huge, heaping helping of suspension of disbelief, however, some mainstream viewers might not mind them as much as those of us caught completely off guard, and consequently might really enjoy the film. Good, but not as great as those labeling it the best film of the year, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 17, 2000 / Posted December 22, 2000


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