Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (12)
AN ‘EASTERN’ in the tradition of the Western, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon replaces gunfights with frenetic swordplay and presents a brilliant martial artist at the core of the action.
With his first Chinese-language film for six years, Ang Lee beautifully captures the essence of 19th century China and the cops, robbers, bandits and freedom fighters that inhabit the city and countryside.
In a double-hander of terrific chemistry, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh are the expert swordsman and woman who cannot declare their love for one another, and who find themselves in the thick of some stupendous and rapid swordplay.
He is Li, a brave warrior who is handing over his precious jade sword, Green destiny, to a new owner. She is Yu Shu, an expert martial artist and the woman who has loved him from afar for years.
When the sword is stolen in the dead of night, Li and Yu Shu are pitched into a series of confrontations with a mysterious warrior, Jade Fox, who appears to be able to vanish into the mist.
Boasting sensational action that is faster than the naked eye, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon resembles an updated version of the old TV series Monkey and The Water Margin.
Fighters fly and walk on water. They leap buildings and rooftops in a single bound and fight duels while balancing on treetops. Yun-fat, Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi bring the battles to vivid life with the aid of speeded-up film and wire-effect stunt work.
Much of Crouching Tiger is understated – the calm before the storm as Yun-fat and Yeoh prepare to do battle, their romance slowly simmering as neither is able to put voice to their passion.
Yun-fat presents Li as the ultimate in honour, a man rooted in the past but with an eye on the upheavals ahead as China lumbers toward the 20th century and the venerable Qing dynasty comes to an end.
Yeoh plays it equally calm, launching herself into breathtaking fights with finesse and clarity of vision. There is no wasted energy in Crouching Tiger; instead, every act is committed with deliberate focus.
As a snapshot of ancient China, this is utterly seductive. It oozes atmosphere and the taste of the Orient, and is richly deserving of the sobriquet ‘epic’. David Lean would have been proud.
If there is a flaw, it is a minor one. From a fast-paced first 20 minutes Crouching Tiger slows markedly when Lee throws in a flashback sequence to explain a love affair between Jen (Ziyi) and her bandit lover. Still, the mood, feel and look of old China never diminishes.
A stunning exercise in motion picture making, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon should be on everyone’s list of ‘must-see’ films. It certainly deserves to pick up some of the many Oscars which industry observers are already predicting it will win in March.