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With: Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Chang
Written by: James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling, Tsai Kuo Long, based on the book by Wang Du Lu
Directed by: Ang Lee
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for martial arts violence and some sexuality
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 120
Date: 16/05/2000

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Talky Chop-Socky

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on DVD.

In the heat of battle, Michelle Yeoh (The Heroic Trio, Tomorrow Never Dies) chases after her fleeing opponent by leaping over rooftops. Chow Yun Fat (The Killer, Anna and the King) scuffles among the treetops, balancing on the delicate tips of branches. Characters seem to be able to fly. Even if you've seen this kind of effect in classic Hong Kong movies, it's never been so breathtaking as it is in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Part of the reason it works so well is the wide scope and slow pace of the movie. The action scenes are filmed like a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance routine, from head to toe, no cheating. Every move, leap, punch, and dodge is clearly seen. And, even more importantly, the space in which the fight takes place is visibly outlined so that we know where the players are at any given moment in relation to their surroundings. (As opposed to he action in, say, "Gladiator," which is muddy and choppy, and nothing is clear or indeed even visible.)

The problem, and the reason for my disappointment, comes when the fighting stops. That's when the slowed-down pace and grandiose size turn deadly. The story has Yeoh and Chow as veteran fighters in love with each other but unable to act upon it. (Chow's former and late master was once engaged to Yeoh.) But the bulk of the movie is devoted to a spoiled young woman (Zhang Ziyi) who is engaged to marry into a rich family but has secretly been training with Chow and Yeoh's old-time foe, Jade Fox (the great Cheng Pei-pei). She steals a prize sword belonging to Chow that becomes the center of the story. If Yeoh and Chow were the leads, the sluggish pace might not have been a problem, but young Zhang doesn't have their charisma. She's not as interesting to look at for long periods of time.

The film is directed by Ang Lee, whose specialty is the "chamber drama," i.e. films where people sit around in rooms and talk a lot. Sometimes this results in very good movies like The Wedding Banquet (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1995), and The Ice Storm (1997). Now for some reason, Lee has decided to tackle the fast-paced Hong Kong action picture and set it in a bunch of rooms where people sit around and talk. Perhaps the thinking was that if they artificially inflated the story--making it slower and bigger--its significance and prestige would grow as well, and Oscar nominations would follow.

However, Lee did have enough sense to hire the great Yuen Woo-ping (Fist of Legend, The Matrix) to choreograph the fight scenes. Those scenes alone are worthy of the excitement and praise that's being heaped up on this movie. But overall, it doesn't quite rank with other films of its kind; classics like Ching Siu Tung's A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Tsui Hark's Swordsman II (1991), or Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time (1994) that manage a consistent pace and tone. We're meant to think that those films are inferior with their bad subtitles and poor distribution. But in fact it's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that comes in second. Which in this case is not too bad.

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