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IN SHORT: A flat out awesome, breathtaking Wow. [Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence and some sexuality. 119 minutes]
Love unspoke and
And everybody was kung fu fighting . . .
What puts Crouching Tiger in our "unlike anything we've ever seen category" is that, unlike most martial arts films, this one has got several substantial stories layered above and around fight scenes unlike anything we've ever. . . you get the picture. Unlike every arthouse film we've ever seen, this one is loaded with fisticuffs (sic) and the battles are phenomenal -- star Michelle Yeoh got her start going head to head with Jackie Chan and should be well remembered for her work in the James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies. Chow Yun Fat has a long association with John Woo. We'd wager, though, that the romantic stories will work just as well for the guys as the fight scenes will for the ladies. Crouching Tiger is that good.
There are two love stories at work here. The first, between the wandering warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and security expert Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) has never been expressed. The second, between the Governor's daughter, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), and bandit named Lo (Chang Chen) becomes important when a valuable sword once owned by Li is stolen. It was Shu Lien's job to deliver the sword to Peking following Li's decision to end his warrior ways and, even though that task was completed, she feels obligated to assist in its recovery. Also at play here is the re-surfacing of a warrior called Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), who had killed Southern Crane, Li's master, years earlier. Li's failure to avenge Southern Crane's death drags him back into "the life". He may battle Jade Fox as his responsibility to his Master is a debt still unpaid. How Li handles battles with a mysterious masked bandit, since he has sworn off fighting, is left to you to discover.
The martial arts angle involves a class of warrior called the Wuxia (that's where Li and Shu Lien and Jade Fox fit in) who exhibit superhuman speed, skills and what appears to be an ability to fly. Trained at a place called Wudan mountain, the Wuxia training is given only to men. Jade Fox learned their secrets by stealing the manual. Shu Lien, once engaged to a Wuxia named Meng, has picked up tips here and there, mostly from Li.
Before we get eMail slammed by the hardcore fans, "wuxia" is also a style of Chinese writing and filmmaking in which wandering heroes right wrongs in a lawless society and exhibit superhuman powers in doing so. We're describing all the fighters who can fly -- you read that right -- as "wuxia" to keep things simple. Not being familiar with the sights of mainland China, where Crouching Tiger was filmed, only once did we find ourselves confused when the story started referring to Jade Fox "fleeing to The West" and later saw sights reminding us of the Grand Canyon. It's the Gobi Desert, not America. Think of Li as John Wayne hanging up his guns or Al Pacino as Michael Coroleone walking away from the family business in Godfather III, all to be called back one last time and you'll have no problem if your eyes lose a line of dialog.
The martial arts battles are choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, a legend in the martial arts filmmaking world best known for his work on The Matrix and with Jackie Chan on oodles of films including Drunken Master (as director) and Drunken Master 2 (as choreographer). If you've only seen average kung fu flicks (and neither of those two are substandard) you know that the flaw in those flicks is always a disregard for story in favor of eye popping action. Ang Lee gives you both action and story in Crouching Tiger and pushes the genre farther forward than we've ever seen it go. Lee and Co. buries story within story until everything comes together in an ending filled with symbolic gestures. He's kept the character count down to the four majors I've mentioned and one significant supporting actor, Bo (Gao Xian) the security chief in Peking. While we are all outsiders watching events in a culture foreign to our own, it is no different than sitting through the aforementioned Sense & Sensibility, in which time and a forgotten economic class are the working variables.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he would have paid...
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a clearly and beautifully told story on every level you could imagine. It's penultimate battle -- we don't have to describe it, you'll be talking about it on the way out -- is as close to aerial ballet as you can get. It is as breathtaking to watch as it is important to the story.
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