Based on a four volume Chinese novel published before World War II, Ang Lee says the story told him back to the tales he read in his youth. An early 19th century marital arts hero Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun Fat) is ready to move on to a life of mediation and a long delayed personal life with his long time close friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). He hands over the 400 year old sword to Shu Lien even though his archrival who killed his master, Jade Fox, is still at large. In taking the sword to Beijing, Shu Lein gets caught up in the dual life of Jen (Zhang Ziyi), by day pretending to be the well-behaved governor’s daughter, but at night training to be a master in martial arts. Her desperate search for a life of freedom draws everyone into a cauldron of good vs. evil, several incredible martial arts displays, and story that is part Star Wars, part Carousel. The two female protagonists are at least the equal of the two men and while the group action martial arts display that leaves a hotel in ruins maybe more speculator, the first five minute, gravity defying, incredibly choreographed fight scene between the two women was greeted with a moment of incredulous silence followed by a huge outburst of applause from the notoriously hard to please press gathered at the first screening.
American audiences know Michelle Yeoh from the Bond films and here she gives a beautifully nuanced performance. We were introduced to Chow Yun Fat in Anna and the King and his charisma jumps from the screen in even the most sedate scenes and helps to explain why this man is so popular in Asia that the Beijing airport was closed for an hour when he arrived – in part in fear of fans mobbing him and in part so all the customs agents could line up to shake his hand.
A martial arts film with full fleshed out, three dimensional characters is a rarity at best, and even more surprising to have it come from a director who has never tried the genre before. Ang Lee was introduced to American audiences with quirky The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink Man Woman and went on to direct Sense and Sensibility and then The Ice Storm. A broader range is hard to imagine and the alps of Northern China and Tibet is a long way from New Canaan, Connecticut, but Lee seems at home in both places.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be released at Christmas in America in at least the larger cities and other distribution plans have yet to be announced. With its wonderful characters, awe-inspiring landscapes subtitles that are poetry themselves and fabulous action, it is a film to be seen over and over again.
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