Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

When they say Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this anymore, this is what they mean.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an action movie with impressive heart and soul, not to mention astonishing technical facility. It’s a welcome throwback to a time when American adventure films weren’t target-marketed within inches of their lives, cluttered with vulgar wisecrackery and built according to a Syd Field blueprint. That the film is in the Chinese language, and is directed by a skilled filmmaker of Asian descent, only adds credibility to its reverent riffs on the conventions of Hong Kong adventure films — themselves a blast of fresh air when screened for U.S. audiences.

Ang Lee is thought of these days as neither a particularly Chinese director (his last film was the Civil War drama Ride With the Devil) nor a skilled maker of action films. In the context of Hollywood, he’s almost a non-entity. His best-known films, Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, were received with more attention to the context of their respective stories — one a Thompson/Winslet period piece, the other an emotionally roiling look back at the sexual confusion of the free-love 70s — than to Lee’s deft, nearly invisible narrative style. They’re also Oscar-caliber films for the direction of which Lee went unrecognized by the Academy.

Like those other films, Crouching Tiger is directed with humble authority. For most of its duration, you’re hardly aware of the guiding intelligence behind the camera; what’s emphasized instead is lovely location photography, punchy martial-arts choreography, and the subtle grace of skilled actors revealing the obscure motivations of characters defined by a spider’s web of backstory. But Lee is clearly there, behind the camera. You can read his presence in the classical staging, in the way he incorporates walls, ceilings and doorways in his framing of interior sequences, and in the way he leaves an ocean of space, seemingly allowing his actors to live and breathe in real time.

Like many Hong Kong historical epics, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is based on pedigreed Chinese literature, a five-volume work by writer Wang Du Lu. I’m not sure whether a typical Chinese viewer might have a better grip on the proceedings, but the story begins in medias res, with master warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) asking that his magical jade sword, the Green Destiny, be delivered to elder Sir Te; he believes his fighting days are through.

Of course, he is wrong, and the theft of that sword sets in motion a complex series of events that reunites old adversaries and rekindles a long-sublimated love affair. It’s one of the marvels of Crouching Tiger that a film starring renowned Asian bad-ass Chow in a lead role would be so unconcerned with his character. Instead, it’s the women who are the focus of attention — Lee and screenwriter Jim Schamus once again provide their actresses with characters of considerable psychological depth and credibility. Michelle Yeoh is terrific as Yu Shu Lien, Li’s old friend who turns detective at the theft of Green Destiny. The 20-year-old Zhang Ziyi turns in a fine performance (her film debut was in Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home, to be released next year in the U.S.) as the wide-eyed Jen Yu, an apparent innocent who turns out to be the (Cantonese-language) dragon of the title. The women pose serious threats, make crucial decisions, and ultimately hold sway over this world. (Compare to the tawdriness of character in Charlie’s Angels to see how far state-of-the-art Hollywood still has to come.)

Though its roots are in classic wuxia filmmaking (the term refers to the chivalrous practioners of Wudan, a martial arts style that often incorporates fanciful gravity-defying acrobatics), the storytelling here is pure pop bliss — anyone who thought Unbreakable was an unsatisfying consideration of comic-book fiction may find this to be the real deal. The word from festival screenings was that savvy crowds were breaking out in applause after the first major action scene, in which Green Destiny’s thief is pursued through courtyards and across rooftops. Even though my expectations were high, the execution of this sequence exceeded them in every way — not since Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2 (Miramaxed this year under the title The Legend of Drunken Master) has hand-to-hand combat been choreographed with such beautiful ferocity. The percussive score becomes thunderous. My breath caught in my throat and I swear my eyes teared up as though I were listening to a particularly gripping musical passage. I may have levitated out of my chair; I’m not sure. The opening-night crowd at a Times Square multiplex put its palms together in appreciation. Later on, Lee played us for tears like the big saps we are. Oh yes, this is not only great kinetic filmmaking, but top-drawer melodrama.

Only during a longish flashback interlude in the film’s midsection does the pace flag notably; to be frank, the scene plays out as if it were scripted for a different film entirely, a less-interesting one without quite the time or the budget it demanded. And as credible as they are, the characterizations are a bit chilly, which robs the film of an overwhelming power it could otherwise wield. If I have a recurring complaint about Lee’s films, it’s that they seem to exist at a remove from their audience. As engaging and exhilarating as this film is, it falls just short of greatness.

Given the pure pleasure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon provides, it hardly makes sense to cavil about this stuff. Imagine an inspired Hong Kong action picture with the budget and sensibility of a movie from one of those Hollywood boutique studios that are sometimes described as “independent.” Further imagine that the result is a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind marvel with stoic swordsmen, beautiful thieves, unrequited love, and light-footed fighting atop bamboo trees. As a barometer, consider my own preference for John Carpenter over Merchant Ivory. And there it is: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a nearly perfect film, and at this writing (December 17) it looks to me like the best of the year.

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