Taiwan-born director Ang Lee and frequent collaborator James Schamus describe Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts"—but it is really more than just another Lee reworking of Jane Austen with midair twist kicks. The film establishes an early emotional inertia in which social codes and restraints clash with personal loyalty and desire. It then re-imagines the warrior-class elements of ancient China (chivalry, inner strength, transcendence), Taoist thought (in which “the way” manifests itself through conflicts of the heart), and Hong Kong action epics (without severed limbs) for a New Millennium audience.
Crouching Tiger is partly an adult version of Peter Pan, with combatants literally flying lithely on their feet across rooftops and water in an 18th- century Never Never Land of fantasy swordplay. Its breathtaking landscapes and tense physical confrontations feel like throwbacks to spaghetti (Sergio Leone) and bread and butter (John Ford) westerns. Its duplicitous identities and agendas, historic melodrama and comic relief bring to mind a feminist Zorro.
Wudan warriors Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) have reached middle age and share an unconsummated love. Shu Lien was engaged to Li’s blood brother. Her fiancé was slain in battle while saving Li’s life. Shu and Li have grown close but are denied romantic union: to mate would dishonor the deceased’s memory, and neither has the courage to first suggest such a transgression.
Li is weary of warfare and would rather meditate than mow down enemies. He has decided to trade his sword for monk apparel and Shu Lien, who operates a sort of eastern Wells Fargo security service, agrees to deliver his 4000-year-old blade (the legendary Green Destiny) to mutual friend Sir Te (Lung Sihung) in Beijing for safe keeping.
Shu Lien befriends the governor’s daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is awaiting an arranged marriage at Sir Te’s compound. That night, a masked intruder steals Green Destiny. A search and recovery mission then ends Li’s retirement, re-acquaints him with the notorious female criminal Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei) and introduces Li and Shu Lien to a younger martial arts practitioner who becomes wedged between forces of good and evil.
Schamus, Wang Hui Ling (Eat Drink Man Woman) and film critic Tsai Kuo Jung based their script on the fourth of a five-part novel by Wang Du Lu. The story takes us from the Forbidden City to the Gobi Desert and Taklamakan Plateau. It talks of revenge, soul mates, deceit, sisterhood and broken bonds. Set in the realm of legends and magic, it paints people as prisoners of social and personal beliefs as age nudges youth into maturity and disciplined perfection in battle leads to transcendence and flight.
Yun-Fat (a veteran of John Woo shootouts) and Yeoh (a reckoning force in 007’s Tomorrow Never Dies) bring a credible tenderness to their roles. They are more than just action figures. Ziyi is sensuous and agile as the ferociously independent Jen. Chang Chen steals his every scene as a lusty bandit whose relationship with Jen is told via flashback.
Lee has tackled such diverse subjects as the Civil War, in Ride With the Devil (1999), suburban angst in The Ice Storm (1997), and culture clashes in The Wedding Banquet (1993). Here he’s attempted to turn martial arts combat into extensions of characters and metaphysical beliefs. Yen Wo-Ping (The Matrix) choreographs the ballet-like battles and the flying is done with heavy wires and harnesses that are then digitally erased.
Crouching Tiger feels too familiar and near-silly at times, but its tone is often both serene and breathless at the same time. The exotic, percussive score by Tan Dun includes the cello of Yo-Yo Ma. The Mandarin-Chinese dialogue may be a hard sell to subtitle-challenged America, but nevertheless, Lee is my candidate for a special Oscar.