Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:00 - Released 12/8/00
The success and acclaim of director Ang Lee's film Wo Hu Zang Long (or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has brought it out from the thriving but isolated world of Hong Kong films to the global mainstream, affording us westerners a glimpse into the fascinating world of Chinese mythology. Many, many films featuring the action and mysticism of Chinese lore (and, specifically, of the ancient art of Kung Fu) are produced in Hong Kong each year, providing thriving careers for lots of Asian actors and filmmakers, but these rarely see wide release, and only recently have Chinese stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-Fat, wildly popular in their native countries, seen widespread exposure in the West. Because of the superior skill and talent of director Lee and his cast, this thoroughly engaging movie will be listed among the top films of 2000. Its subject matter is somewhat different from what western audiences are used to (usually, Kung Fu movies are just seen as "action" films and not expected to have much depth), but it is altogether beautiful and in some ways magical, and after getting used to its mystic/realistic style, audiences will not fail to see its beauty.

Crouching Tiger is set several centuries ago, but is unclear as to its specific time period. This emphasizes the timelessness of legend, since love, adventure, Chinese society, and the martial arts have all been around long enough that it doesn't really matter. The story, based on the novel by Du Lu Wang and written for the screen by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai, is presented as a legend, blending reality with lore. As we accept a princess who kisses a frog and turns him into a prince, we can accept lovers and warriors who seem able to fly or defy gravity as a result of their skill, their beliefs, and their intense training.

The story begins when Li Mu Bai (Chow), a famous master from the Wudan sect, decides to retire from the fighting life and return home to his family and his lifelong friend and fellow warrior Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, Tomorrow Never Dies). He gives his legendary, 400 year old sword, the Green Destiny, to an honored local dignitary as a gift, but it is soon stolen by a masked villain working for the infamous Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), Li Mu Bai's mortal enemy and the killer of his former master (who was the father of Shu Lien). As the two friends, aided by the local authorities, attempt to defeat Jade Fox and her well-trained mystery thief and recover the sword, they meet teenager Jiao Long Yu, translated in the subtitles as "Jen" (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a visiting governor who sees the fighting life as a wonderful adventure and desperately wants to escape from her boring socialite existence, especially since she is about to be married against her wishes. Jen and Shu Lien become friends, in fact they refer to themselves as "sisters," but it soon becomes clear that Jen has ties to the nefarious Giang Hu underworld, of which Jade Fox is a part.

Although its dialogue, characterizations, and relationships have a deeply realistic tone, Crouching Tiger's action scenes border on the fantastic, with fighters running up the sides of walls and leaping to the tops of buildings with Peter Pan-like agility (I guess in the Wudan training, one learns to think happy thoughts), but this serves to show the extent to which, in Chinese mythology, the real and the magical are intertwined. Also bearing magical qualities is Li Mu Bai's Green Destiny sword, which seems to afford supernatural powers to its bearer, not unlike King Arthur's Excalibur. The scenery in this film, which was shot entirely on location in Anhui Province, China, is remarkable, alternating between majestic panoramic views of the Gobi Desert, where a long flashback portion is set, the streets of Beijing, and the lush, green forests where some of the most amazing fight scenes take place (in the tops of trees, no less). Apparently, Chow and Yeoh, both Cantonese, had to learn to speak Mandarin for the film (although no one but Chinese-speaking moviegoers would notice their reportedly distinct accents), but this language issue does not take away from the honesty of their acting. Also notable are young Ziyi Zhang, whose alternation between lover and fighter is skilled and touching, and Chen Chang, who plays Jen's dashing young desert lover in the standard princess/rogue pairing.

Crouching Tiger is a delicious look into a world with which many of us are not familiar; its costume designs, music (including cello solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma), and incredible fight choreography (by Yuen Wo-Ping, The Matrix) is amazing to watch, but its atmosphere and touching love story are no less engaging. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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