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For slightly more than a decade, Chinese martial arts films have directly and indirectly gained a growing audience in the United States. Now the genre may find its greatest breakthrough coming from an unlikely source: director Ang Lee, best known for comedy-dramas of social manners such as Sense and Sensibility, The Wedding Banquet, and The Ice Storm. In his newest film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee modifies his usual tony approach in a largely successful attempt to re-create the genre's virtues for a new audience.
Lee begins with several huge advantages. Working with a Hollywood company -- Sony Pictures may be Japanese-owned, but it's still a Hollywood studio -- he has a budget the size of which earlier directors in the field could only dream. (Actually the budget, a reported $17 million, is a pittance by current Hollywood standards.) He has two of the four most recognizable Asian actors in the United States -- Chow Yun Fat (Anna and the King, The Enforcer) and Michelle Yeoh (Supercop, Tomorrow Never Dies) as his stars. (To answer the inevitable follow-up question, the other two are Jackie Chan and Jet Li.) His films' Academy Award nominations and his international reputation have given him the clout to attract the cream of Asian talent behind the camera as well.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon starts in a deceptively quiet manner: The setting is sometime during China's Qing dynasty. Li Mu Bai (Chow), one of the nation's most famous warriors, has decided to retire from the world of martial arts, literally hanging up his sword, Green Destiny. He visits an old friend, woman warrior Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), to ask her to take the mystically powerful Green Destiny to Beijing to be remanded to Sir Te (Lung Sihung) for safekeeping. In the course of this conversation, we realize that Shu Lien and Mu Bai are in love with each other but have fought their attraction for decades for complicated reasons of honor that are explained later.
While handing over the sword to Sir Te, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the beautiful and very young daughter of a local nabob. The two immediately bond: Jen, smart and tough, clearly reminds Shu Lien of her younger self.
In the handling of this material it becomes apparent that Ang Lee is still Ang Lee, regardless of the genre in which he is working. From opening logo to the end of this scene, a full 16 minutes of exposition take place, essentially a sequence of conversations outlining the characters and, crucially, the behavioral and ethical codes of their world. Sixteen minutes may not seem very long to those used to art-house films, which is how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is being marketed. But for those versed in Chinese action cinema, particularly the Hong Kong variety that has dominated the field for 20 years, it's an eternity. No Hong Kong director, except perhaps the anomalous art-house filmmaker Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express), would dare lead with that much exposition and character development; an H.K. director would typically contrive an opening action scene before settling in for the slower stuff, even if that scene had no real internal justification.
Audience expectation becomes an important factor here: As an example, when Brian De Palma was making his early film Sisters, he instructed his composer, long-time Hitchcock associate Bernard Herrmann, not to write suspense music for a certain sequence. When Herrmann disagreed, De Palma said, "But Hitchcock wouldn't use music here."
"That's right," Herrmann replied (in essence), "because he's Hitchcock, and the audience knows that."
The audience that is naturally attracted to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- the audience that knows Ang Lee's other works -- will not be at all bothered or surprised by the pacing; such viewers have no expectation of how martial arts films are supposed to be paced according to the rules of the genre.
For everyone else Lee's decision, even if one questions it, has a marvelous payoff. After Su Lien and Jen meet, we get the first action sequence: a nocturnal fight between Su Lien and a masked thief (who quite obviously is Jen in disguise), in which the latter steals Green Destiny. After the slow opening, this magnificent fight scene has the impact of a thunderbolt. Staged by master action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping -- best known in the United States for his action work on The Matrix, though he's also directed some of Hong Kong's most entertaining films -- the fight is breathtaking, culminating in a chase that includes vaulting, a dreamlike form of jumping/flying in which the actors appear to skim effortlessly up walls and across rooftops. This form of graceful action, which implies some sort of spiritual as well as physical development, is so alien to most Western eyes that audiences may titter at first before accepting it as part of the movie's fantastic universe.
A half-dozen more such sequences are spaced judiciously throughout the entire film. And while Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has other virtues, its greatest power lies in its action. Far more than Lee's earlier works, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon glories in motion. Its aesthetic, like most martial arts movies, has at least as much in common with musicals as with Hollywood notions of action filmmaking. It depends less upon dialogue and strict forms of narrative continuity than upon ideas of rhythm and visual American action cinema pre John Woo. For that sort of beauty in Hollywood, one traditionally had to look to All That Jazz, West Side Story, the Astaire/ Rogers musicals, and the tap dance extravaganzas of Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather. In short the pleasures to be found here are likely to come as a delightful surprise to those who would normally never even consider going to a "chop-socky" film (an unfairly derogatory term for the genre in which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon must be included).
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