- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

Ang Lee's new movie, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is the most beautiful and stirring martial-arts spectacle ever made, or ever likely to be made.

The title alludes to the predatory and destructive elements in human nature. Their emergence, in a precocious young thief and assailant who steals a legendary sword called Green Destiny, becomes the concern of two virtuous, heroic soul mates played by Hong Kong stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh. Their characters are Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien.

The fighting skills of the two equal — and perhaps surpass — those exhibited by their elusive adversary. Unfortunately, not even awesome skill is a certain defense against treachery and malice.

Self-denial and social proprieties have prevented Li and Shu Lien from consummating a mutual devotion of long standing. Li, the greatest warrior associated with the esteemed Wudan brotherhood — a remote Chinese prototype for George Lucas' Jedi knights — seems on the verge of finally unburdening his heart and popping the question to the elegant Shu Lien in a disarming introductory sequence.

One last pilgrimage to the Wudan mountaintop, ultimately revealed to us in the finale, intervenes. Meanwhile, he entrusts Shu Lien, who has inherited a kind of 16th-century or 17th-century security franchise from her late father, with the 400-year-old Green Destiny and agrees to meet her in Beijing.

By the time that appointment can be kept, an optimistic future is in doubt. The sword has disappeared overnight from the home of a nobleman. His house guests, a family preparing for the wedding of their daughter, rate high in Shu Lien's suspicions (and our own). Reunited but on the spot, Li and Shu Lien must pursue the thief, confronted in a series of dazzling, levitating battles that defy gravity and confirm the rivals as combative marvels.

The culprit is masked but clearly female. Li and Shu Lien would prefer to shelter and reform such a youthful and superior instrument (Zhang Ziyi as Jen Yu), but she is reluctant to place herself under their protection. Alas, she remains an instrument of evil and dominated by a mentor known as Jade Fox, who was responsible for the murder of Li's beloved Wudan master. The impasse puts several destinies in mortal jeopardy.

No other filmmaker has made lyrical an action genre as effectively, not to mention as sublimely, as Mr. Lee has with "Crouching Tiger."

One reason the lofty, astonishing fight duets and ensembles — choreographed by the noted Hong Kong specialist Yuen Wo Ping, whose acrobatic vision finally made an impact on Hollywood in "The Matrix" — sweep you away is that Mr. Lee imposes a more elevated context and sensibility from the outset.

Some fans of the martial-arts genre may even feel a pang of regret at the absence of disillusioning absurdities, either in the stunt-work or on the soundtrack. Mr. Lee sustains an illusion of historical antiquity combined with moral earnestness that favors heightened chivalry, phenomenal physical prowess, Arabian Nights flights of the imagination, thwarted romance and elegiac emotions.

The atmosphere is poetic. Though kinetically exciting in their own right, the fight interludes also evoke great dance duets in movie musicals of the past. So much sensual and reflective pleasure is released during "Crouching Tiger" that one seems to rediscover the most sophisticated and transporting aspects of the film medium itself. Even droll reminders of vintage movie crazes seem to harmonize with this realm of fantasy: An extended flashback recalls the thief's clandestine love affair with a kind of Gobi desert "sheik," a bandit known as Dark Cloud.

Whether "Crouching Tiger" can become a far-reaching, inspirational, taste-improving attraction around the world remains to be seen, but it should have a fighting chance. Mr. Lee has outclassed the entire calendar year by a wide margin with "Crouching Tiger." But the American industry probably will need to close ranks around its own, presumably Julia Roberts and "Erin Brockovich" or Tom Hanks and "Cast Away," which are at least defensibly parochial.

Having snubbed Mr. Lee as a best-director finalist for "Sense and Sensibility" several years ago, members of the Academy of Motion Pictures should be under a little pressure to recognize him this year. After all, he also was ignored for "The Ice Storm." That film was a far more penetrating and affecting approach to the same thematic material that became Oscar-worthy last year in "American Beauty," which realized that caricature was the key to esteem.

"Crouching Tiger" pretty much clinches the case for Mr. Lee as the most impressive director to emerge in the past decade. Born in Taiwan in 1954, he moved to the United States in 1978 and obtained graduate degrees from the University of Illinois and New York University. He formed a production partnership in New York City with James Schamus, who taught film history, theory and criticism at Columbia University.

Pigeonholing Mr. Lee as a humorist, and a distinctive and appealing humorist, seemed logical on the strength of his first three features, "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman." He has confounded categorical limitations since then and vaulted to diverse historical periods and narratives with "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm," "Ride With the Devil" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Working on mainland China for the first time, Mr. Lee seems to have reconciled its cinematic resources with those of Hong Kong and Taiwan. This sort of unification may be easier to achieve in art than politics, but it might enhance the curiosity of a movie-conscious world about Chinese film talent along with Chinese mythology and cultural traditions.

The dialogue is in Mandarin with English subtitles, but the translations are incisive and unobtrusive. A haunting score by Tan Dun is augmented by cello solos from Yo-Yo Ma, so there also are musical bonuses to expect.

Mr. Lee is a great example of curiosity, empathy, versatility and finesse in a movie directors. He would seem unlikely to claim the martial-arts spectacle as an area of expertise.

But he has borrowed its conventions so respectfully and gloriously that the genre may never be able to fall back on shabby work with a clear conscience.

Is it too late for Mr. Lucas to enjoy a revelatory experience while watching "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? Perhaps the Wudan can help inspire and rejuvenate his faltering Jedis.{*}{*}{*}{*}TITLE: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"RATING: PG-13 (Stylized sequences of martial-arts combat; fleeting nudity and sexual candor)CREDITS: Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung, based on a novel by Wang Du Lu. Cinematography by Peter Pau. Fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping. Production and costume design by Tim Yip. Editing by Tim Squyres. Music by Tan Dun, with cello solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma. In Mandarin with English subtitles.RUNNING TIME: Two hours

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