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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Theres a certain irony to the fact that the Asian action film thats currently being so readily embraced by critics is not from Hong Kong and has not been made by any of the Hong Kong New Wave directors who achieved cult status in the late 80s and early 90s. Instead, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (opening 12/22 at the Hillcrest Cinemas) is the work of Taiwanese director Ang Lee, best known for his wry social comedies The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman.

In the press materials, Lee cites novels of romance and adventure as well as martial arts movies of his childhood as the inspiration for making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He calls his film a dream of China and notes that he chose the most populist, if not popular genre in film historythe Hong Kong martial arts filmto tell his story and used this pop genre almost as a kind of research instrument to explore the legacy of classical Chinese culture.

I have to confess that I had very high expectations for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Now thats an unfair burden to put on any film but as an avid Hong Kong film addict I couldnt help looking forward to the first pairing of Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. Plus, I had heard reports of standing ovations at Cannes where the film played out of competition. What I saw, however, was not really a Hong Kong film but rather an art house version of the genreslower, more poetic but unable to take my breath away like the best of the Hong Kong films have always done. So, needless to say, I felt a bit disappointed. Yet the very things that disappointed methe restraint, the measured pace, the overtly artistic approachmay be what will make the film a major art house hit and possibly even an Oscar candidate.

The problem distributors have always had with the over-the-top, in-your-face Hong Kong movies of the past two decades was that the films were, as Lee noted, popular entertainment and American distributors didnt know how to market pop fare that had subtitles. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, however, is much easier to package as an art house film because it tones down the violence and excesses of the Hong Kong genre, plays up the artistry and banks on Lees popularity with critics. I hope that the films box office appeal will help to re-ignite interest in the genre and spur the re-issue of some classic Hong Kong titles that never received a proper release here in the U.S.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon offers an adaptation of one part of a multi-part novel by Wang Du Lu. The film revolves around three main characters: Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), his longtime friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen (Zhang Yiyi), a young girl enamoured with tales of adventure. Li is a great martial artist who wants to retire from his violent way of life. In a symbolic gesture, he asks Shu Lien to give his sword, the Green Dynasty, as a gift to Sir Te (Lung Sihung). When the sword is stolen, Li and Shu Lien join forces again to recover it and along the way rekindle old feelings for each other. They also begin to suspect that the beautiful and high spirited Jen may be the thief.

The film offers an epic and ultimately tragic romance between Li and Shu Lien and then parallels their love story with one between Jen and the handsome bandit Lo (Chang Chen). Lee and writers James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung emphasize real emotions more than most Hong Kong films do. But their emphasis on strong women, which they point to as a new twist in the genre, is not nearly as innovative as they think. Women have been kicking butt and holding their own with men for some time in Hong Kong movies but Lees film does afford them more emotional weight and depth of character.

The fights, choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping (who did Fist of Legend and Iron Monkey in Hong Kong and The Matrix for Hollywood), display some beautiful wire work (thats when actors are suspended on wires to allow them to defy gravity). But none of the fights top his work in Hong Kong or match the breathtaking wire work of Ching Siu Tung (who did A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman II and Butterfly Sword). In fact, a fight atop trees typifies the difference in fight styles between Crouching Tiger and other Hong Kong films. Lee and Yuen have their fight move slowly and gracefully so we can appreciate the beauty of the fighters moves and see the combatants faces. In contrast, Chings battle atop bamboo in Butterfly Sword (in which Michelle Yeoh turns bamboo into lethal weapons) was so fast and furious that you couldnt help gasping with delight. In Crouching Tiger, Yuen stages a number of his fights in wide open spaces, which allows the choreography to receive our full attention. But the action lacks some of the kinetic energy found in the more claustrophobic fights of Hong Kong films where cluttered, cramped quarters provided for more innovative use of space, props and scenery.

Once again Chow Yun Fat is not used to his fullest potential. (To date, only John Woo, Ringo Lam and Cheung Yuen Ting seem willing to challenge and showcase his range.) But he does make the coolest martial arts warrior of all time, barely breaking a sweat in a half dozen or so fights. Li is a stoic figure but Chow lets a sly smile cross his lips from time to time to let us see a different side to his character. Yeoh also delivers a restrained performance and gets a chance to strut her acting as well as martial arts skills. Zhang Yiyi and Chang Chen, as the young lovers, dont have the stature of Chow and Yeoh but they hold their own quite well and display considerable spunk and appeal. And special mention needs to be made of Cheng Pei Pei as the evil Jade Fox. Cheng became the first lady of kung fu in the 1960s and its a pleasure to see how good she still is. (An interesting note: Cheng played Yeohs instructor in Yuen Wo-Pings Wing Chun).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a beautifully rendered film and while it may lack the delirious excesses of Hong Kong action films, it attempts to redefine the genre in ways that may make it more appealing to American audiences. But please, if you like this film, go out and rent some classic Hong Kong titles as well, such as Butterfly Sword that comes out on DVD this week.

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