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Published: Friday, 1/19/2001

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Director kicks martial arts films to higher level

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon inspires hyperbole. Its joys are so primal, so central to the reason we go to movies in the first place, you want to clap. It's not hard to see why the buzz around this picture has built into a blabbering roar of praise:

Ang Lee's film remembers movie love.

In fact, it has less to do with story than with a feeling Lee recaptures, that moment when your eyes widen and a shiver runs down your spine because the movies are doing what the movies do so rarely: take you out of yourself, remove you from the theater (at least in your head), and show you something you've never seen before.

Although the movie is in Mandarin Chinese, with subtitles and a cast of Asian action superstars, Crouching Tiger is a surprisingly seamless and satisfying hybrid of lush Hollywood melodrama, historical epic, fairy tale, Eastern mythology, musicals, a little ballet, and the pop culture thrills of a modern Hong Kong martial arts throw-down.

You want more hyperbole? Crouching Tiger is the motion in motion picture.

Its fight scenes are some of the most dazzling ever shot. And that's because they work both within reality and just outside of it. Lee unashamedly eschews gravity, and the first time it happens, you gasp. Thanks to Yuen Wo-Ping, the choreographer behind the airborne fights in The Matrix, Lee's characters run up the side of buildings, leap from rooftop to rooftop, duck, dodge, skip, pounce, spin, and glide across the sky.

And they do it smoothly, too. These aren't digital actors against digital backdrops, but real actors scurrying up real bamboo trees, leaping across real leaves, battling with swords the whole time - and, after months of training, actually doing what is on the screen with the use of wires and harnesses (later digitally removed). But even if you didn't know that, you would sense the difference. There's nothing synthetic about the action. It's fluid and Peter Pan-ish, and it moves the film into the fantastical. But Lee's real coup lies elsewhere: his film's moods are steeped in genuine emotion.

There's a humanity here that's missing from most films - foreign, Hollywood, or otherwise - as well as a center of calm. Sometimes everything just stops. Lee pulls back from a scene and removes his camera from the actor's faces, and we watch our heroes sit side by side for a moment, what they can't say as poignant as what they can.

Think of it as you would a musical: There's some plot, but every few minutes, it's time to mix it up again. The first 15 to 20 minutes of Crouching Tiger are prologue. Lee uses the open courtyards and quiet mountain scenery to set a tone, and the extra time to explain the tale (adapted from an obscure 70-year-old Chinese novel). The story might be complicated and opaque, but it's also not just there to kill time between fights.

Chow Yun Fat plays Li Mu Bai, a legendary Chinese warrior headed into retirement. On the way to the grave of his murdered master, he visits Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a longtime friend and (of all things) the owner of a rural security agency. They love each other, but while it's obvious to everyone else, neither warrior has the courage to admit it. Li gives her the Green Destiny, an unbreakable sword, and is about to leave when the governor's daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), arrives.

An impulsive young bride-to-be, she confides to Shu Lien her desire to break off her arranged marriage and join a life of adventure. Soon the Green Destiny disappears and a masked thief is spotted flying across roofs. Coincidence? Nah.

Sounds ridiculous? Sure. It is.

But who expected the darn thing to be elegant too?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the rarest kind of movie, one that transcends the conventions of its material while sticking close to its spirit, giving you something both familiar and altogether new. What Star Wars is to science fiction, this is to martial arts, a little bit of this and that from movie history wrapped in a new package - a work that deepens and expands the possibilities of a little-respected genre, while giving the rest of us new day dreams. Oh, and hey, Bruce Lee - rest in peace.



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