During the final scene in the work of daredevil cinematic artistry that is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a major character makes a leap of faith by diving off a mountain into thin air. My advice is that you approach this heartfelt fable with the same outlook and let director Ang Lee be your wings. Here is the kind of filmmaking magic that we’ve been missing for ages. Lee, the Taiwanese master who made his reputation in America with Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, uses breathless storytelling, ravishing romance and martial-arts miracles to sweep us into adventures beyond our imagining. It’s great, gorgeous fun.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, based on a novel by Wang Du Lu, is set in nineteenth-century China, and Lee took his cameras to locations ranging from Beijing to the Gobi Desert. Trendies looking for another hard dose of media “reality” should look elsewhere. Lee rightly points out that the film, with a screenplay by James Schamus (The Ice Storm), Wang Hui Ling (Eat Drink Man Woman) and Taiwan film critic Tsai Kuo Jung, is “a China that probably never existed except in my boyhood fantasies.”
The action begins, ironically, with no action at all, just the emotions that play on the faces of two lovers who have never acted on their feelings. Li Mu Bai, the noble warrior portrayed with effortless charisma by Hong Kong film legend Chow Yun-fat, is hanging up his sword, an exquisitely designed 400-year-old blade known as the Green Destiny. Mu Bai tells machete-wielding security officer Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), the object of his banked passion, that the sword has not bred enlightenment, only sorrow. Both actors bring startling intimacy to a relationship that has been thwarted by a rigid sense of honor. Shu Lien had been engaged to a man, Mu Bai’s brother by oath, who died saving Mu Bai in battle. Mu Bai’s old friend, Sir Te (Lung Sihung), offers chastening advice: “When it comes to emotion, even great heroes can be idiots.”
And so, with humor and touching simplicity, the stage is set. Chow Yun-fat may be the coolest actor on the planet, but here he must test his mettle against three remarkable actresses. The Malaysia-born Yeoh, radiating strength and graceful beauty, is a knockout. When Mu Bai returns to the warrior training ground on Wudan Mountain to honor his master, a teacher who was poisoned by the treacherous Jade Fox, Shu Lien remains in Beijing to take care of business.
For starters, the Green Destiny is stolen — like you didn’t expect that, huh? The culprit is a masked thief whom Shu Lien suspects is Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the teenage daughter of the district governor. Previously, Shu Lien had befriended this headstrong girl who resists her father’s plans for an arranged marriage and envies Shu Lien’s life as a fighter who “roams wild.” Zhang, nineteen at the time of filming, explodes onscreen, drawing us into the plot and the headlong action.
The masked Jen nabs the Green Destiny and in a flash Shu Lien is chasing her across Beijing’s moonlit rooftops, spectacularly shot by Peter Pau and set to a potent, percussive score by Tan Dun. Suddenly, Jen is climbing walls and leaping between buildings in defiance of gravity. Shu Lien follows with the same balletic grace. You might snicker at first, that is, until the swooping, kicking and gliding — all choreographed by The Matrix master Yuen Wo-Ping, who put the actors on wires that were later erased digitally — takes over and disbelief evaporates as Jen makes her escape.
In her next encounter, the masked Jen goes sword to sword with Mu Bai, who grudgingly admires her skill with the Green Destiny. “The sword is just a state of mind,” he says. “Stop talking like a monk,” Jen sasses. A deadly battle ensues, with the police joining the melee along with Jen’s governess (Cheng Pei-pei, the star of many a 1960s kung-fu epic), who is revealed to be the infamous Jade Fox. Cheng, in the film’s third sterling female performance, digs into the rage that made Jade Fox kill Mu Bai’s master: “Sure he’d sleep with me, but he would never teach me.” And so the film becomes a contest for Jen’s soul. Zhang Ziyi makes a worthy focus of all this attention. Aided in the stunts by her ballet training, she is an electrifying actress — so lithe, sexy and fiercely intelligent that audiences will follow her anywhere.
Ang Lee certainly does. In a ploy that would stop a lesser movie cold, the director cuts to a long flashback showing how Jen, traveling in the desert, met Lo (Chang Chen), a young bandit who teaches her about love and tells her the legend of a boy who jumped from a mountain in the belief that a faithful heart can make his wish come true.
It’s Lo who comes to Jen before her marriage, begging her to leave with him. Instead, disguised as a man, Jen takes the Green Destiny into battle, finally crossing swords with Mu Bai in a bamboo forest, each perched on branches seventy feet off the ground. If there is a more visually stunning scene on film this year, I haven’t seen it.
The climax takes place in a cave where the characters settle scores on matters profane and profound amid a deadly spray of Jade Fox’s poisoned needles. But the film cuts closest to the heart by simply watching Mu Bai and Shu Lien at a moment of crisis. Chow reveals astonishing depths. But the revelation is Yeoh. This former Bond babe (Tomorrow Never Dies) and the star of countless kick-ass flicks, including Supercop with Jackie Chan, scores an acting triumph in a heroic role that she instills with power and true romantic yearning. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is easily the best-acted film in the martial-arts canon, and the classiest — hell, Yo-Yo Ma does the weeping cello solos — and its slant on feminist empowerment makes it the most unique. The inside rap is that The Matrix crowd won’t sit still for a movie spoken in Mandarin with English subtitles, no matter how hot the stunts. Defy the doomsayers. Ang Lee, a world-class director working at the top of his elegant form, has done something thrilling. For all the leaping action, it’s the film’s spirit that soars.