Cinema Signal:

. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

When you first come upon it you might ask, "what is this with a title like that"? But it's not just the title that's unusual about this picture. The title, in fact, is a preparation for what you're about to witness.

What might you expect from Ang Lee, the director of "Sense and Sensibilities" (1995) and "The Ice Storm" (1997) when he teams up with the action choreographer of "The Matrix" and "Charlie's Angels" (Yuen Wo-Ping). Well, it's not a Jackie Chan spin off. It's a chinese-language hybrid that won awards at Cannes, Toronto and New York.

It's sci-fi in the context of old-fashioned classical Chinese culture in which the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is threatened by and protected by people who have special powers that defy gravity and bring martial art disciplines to a level that could only be realized in this digital age of movie-making, a phenomenon the director calls, "weightless leaping". It also brings female empowerment to rooftop levels.

Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat, "Anna and the King") is the great warrior and top swordsman, master of the art of speed fighting and flying. His intention to retire is met with mixed emotion by Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, "Tomorrow Never Dies", 1997) who was married to his best friend. That friend perished while saving Mu Bai from danger. Silently, she harbors a deep love for Mu Bai, which is as repressed as it is constant, masked behind her obvious respect for him as master warrior. She is also highly skilled in the special flying fight techniques, perhaps second only to Mu Bai.

When Mu Bai symbolizes his retirement by turning his sword over to a court official's household, and when that very special sword is stolen, the conflict between good and evil commences.

The lovely and arrogant Jen (Ziyi Zhang), recklessly overconfident in her own mastery of the flying technique gives Mu Bai a run (and a fly) for his money, threatening his plans and his preference for order and goodness. She has been trained by the evil fugitive, Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), representing the dark force in a Star Wars type conflict that is destined for an all or nothing finish.

But, the fiery Jen is no Luke Skywalker whose affiliations and goals were clear. Instead, she's a wild card as her loyalties and her mission changes. When Lo (Chen Chang), the reckless dessert bandit captures her from her caravan enroute to her family-arranged marriage, she ends up in love with the young, handsome outlaw, which changes her priorities.

Martial arts audiences will find a new setting for their thrills in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and are likely to want to see it more than once -- much as they did "The Matrix". Film buffs, as indicated by its success at the festivals, will find a film that breaks as many genre conventions as laws of physics.

At the time I was being amazed by the conceptual ground breaking of "The Matrix" I knew that we were in for some interesting followups employing this expanded mode of physical action. This is such a work, rewarding in how it creatively exploits the concept of multi-dimensionality and release from gravity to its own unique story requirements. Its awards are well earned.

But... despite these attractions, there is a large part of the theatre-going public who are likely to turn away at the mix of past and futuristic, the overly propelled combatants, the repetition of fight sequences. While Lee does a good job of preserving clarity between the good guys and bad guys, especially in a traditional Chinese context, he seems to have become intoxicated with the notions that his newfound technique suggest. The swinging treetop contest between Li Mu Bai and Jen is just such an example of directorial excess.

A special pat on the back to this cast for physical accomplishment. Sure, the digital tricks, special harnesses, wire supports, cranes and boom arms provided the extra-terrestrial effects, you couldn't do any of it without considerable training and acrobatic conditioning.

The story's title derives from a Chinese saying used to refer to a place where mysterious or unsuspected powers lurk. It also refers to the nicknames of the two younger principals, Lo and Jen.

The people who stay away from this movie are the same who wouldn't set foot in a Jackie Chan chop-socky flick. Too bad, because in the end, it's an experience worth having at this early date in the new millennium. It's a film-lovers film. It's also a double love story, one between the reticent and reserved Mu Bai and the graceful and constant Lien -- a middle-aged second chance after earlier repression and regret; the other between the nervy Jen and the wild bandit she tames, Lo -- demonstrating how the power of sensuality can confuse one's youthful concepts.

These relationships are sensitively portrayed by Chow and Yeoh and Zhang and Chang. Director Ang Lee is, after all, an accomplished story teller and he puts enough into his film to keep you in your seat for more reasons than blindingly fast action and fantasy acrobatics. See this original take on the martial arts which is destined to become a cult favorite.

Estimated cost: $15,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $125,000,000.

Realized U.S. boxoffice 4/15/01: 114,704,847. Worldwide: $180,646,547. (Variety).

Rated A, for Audacious.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

"Seen this movie many times already. Best since years. Your review added some more insight, thus giving a reason to watch again."
                                 ~~ Anonymous reader

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