Kung-Fu Folklore

"It's like Lawrence of Arabia meets The Matrix," my friend effused as we left Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee's astonishing new martial arts fantasia. As analogies go, that one is imperfect-Tiger trumps its predecessors in both narrative clarity and dramatic range. But the comparison does express the film's enormous stylistic latitude: Lee has fashioned a chop-socky action epic charged with breathless romance and metaphysical gravity. It's the first movie to target both Merchant-Ivory devotees and Mortal Kombat buffs.

The story, culled from a 1922 avant-garde feminist tract by Du Lu Wang, is constructed from the strong, simple beams and rafters of fable: in some timeless past, the revered Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) allies with Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to reclaim the plundered Green Destiny, a sword of legendary force and value. Their quest soon embroils a young aristocrat named Jen Yu (exquisite newcomer Zhang Ziyi) and a secret acolyte of Li Mu's enigmatic nemesis, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei). Feats of heroic bravado and sinister betrayals ensue as the tempestuous adolescent Jen lists between the leagues of justice and evil.

It's unabashed folklore, yes, but neither facile nor predictable. Moreover, the sound narrative platform enables Lee to stage scenes of high drama, low comedy, dead-on combat and transcendent romance. From the heady, impassioned courtship of the teenaged Jen and her vagabond lover Lo (Chen Chang), to the quiet yearning that chokes Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien, these passages contribute to the movie's grand emotional scope. And while Crouching Tiger isn't expressly political, it endows its numerous female characters with an agency rarely allotted women in action movies (or movies of any genre, really). Credit that sensitivity to Lee, the most versatile director now working, whose Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm likewise featured empowered women in eras not known for gender equality.

Here, Lee once again demonstrates his aptitude for eliciting bravura performances from a panoramic cast. Chow's two English-language efforts-the lame shoot-em-up The Replacements and Jodie Foster's opulent misfire Anna and the King-featured a leading man visibly uncomfortable with a foreign tongue; here, in his native Mandarin, the actor embodies his character, projecting the same focus and calm as his radiant co-star Yeoh (who fared passably stateside with Tomorrow Never Dies). The film's most unforgettable performer, however, is Zhang, a 20-year-old neophyte possessed of unearthly grace and spectacular assurance.

Crouching Tiger's technical credits are impeccable, notably Peter Pau's camera, which frames desert vistas and mist-steeped moutains in ravishing tableaux, then snaps into nimble kinesis for the film's truly dazzling action sequences. Much media attention has been justly heaped on these scenes, which are unlike anything previously recorded on film. One bout of combat that scales rooftops and defies gravity manages to incorporate elements of suspense, danger and humor; it's not merely an aggressive display of technical virtuosity-achieved, impossibly, through suspension wires instead of digital trickery-but represents also a natural progression of the plot.

The final ten minutes of Crouching Tiger tilt a bit heavily towards the mystical; the conclusion doesn't dissatisfy so much as perplex. All the same, it's an agreeably arty closing to a beautifully crafted film-a reminder to American audiences that theirs isn't the only moviemaking culture in the world.


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