A magnificently crafted hybrid of Chinese historical epic, F/X-enhanced martial arts spectacular, mystical romantic tragedy and live-action anime, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a film that defies genre while embracing traditionalism.
It's an intellectually challenging story of noble warriors in feudal China, yet it's packed with eloquent swordplay and lightning-fast hand-to-hand combat. It's also the story of a burning, long-unspoken love between one warrior and the fiancée of a fallen comrade -- a woman his honor forbids him from pursuing, even years later as they fight side-by-side against a mysterious and vengeful sworn enemy.
What's more, it is an unconventional coming-of-age fable as well, about the beautiful teenage daughter (Zhang Ziyi) of a provincial governor, who longs desperately for freedom in the face of an impending arranged marriage that will surely clip her wings.
These narratives converge in the journey of a sword belonging to the warrior (the piercing Chow Yun-Fat), who has decided it's time to resign from a legendarily heroic life of military duty. His unattainable love (Michelle Yeoh), a kung-fu swordfighter herself who makes a living providing security for transported goods, carries the symbolic blade cross-country to Chow's elderly mentor. But almost immediately upon her arrival, the sword is stolen by a masked intruder who sneaks into the mentor's compound like a whisper on the wind, but doesn't get away nearly as easily.
In the first of many graceful, surreal and awe-inspiring fight scenes, Yeoh faces off against the veiled thief in a ferocious skirmish that plays like an opium dream version of a fight from "The Matrix" (no coincidence since Hong Kong action veteran Yuen Wo-Ping choreographed both films).
As if exempt from gravity, the combatants propel themselves across rooftops with nothing more than the slight touch of their toes. They run up walls, spin in the air and exchange an astonishing array of kicks and blows so rapid as to almost become a blur. It's Peter Pan meets Jet Li, with an underlying sense of the metaphysical.
The theft sets off a string of events that lead to Chow's arrival to seek the missing sword and finally avenge the death of Yeoh's lover (and his friend) upon an arch-rival, a witch-like madwoman called Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), who he has concluded must have staged the burglary as a farewell attack on his retirement from all things violent.
A tender, resigned sadness permeates parts of the film as Chow and Yeoh find their forbidden love rekindled. Meanwhile, they both try to take the governor's petulant daughter under their wings after discovering she has a gift for swordplay and their supernatural style of martial arts.
But there's much more than meets they eye with this girl, who we learn in a lengthy flashback once fell in love with a desert pirate after her family's cavalcade was attacked and she personally gave chase, kicking the crap out of a whole gang of marauders.
"Crouching Tiger" is a native language masterpiece for the remarkably versatile director Ang Lee, who has helmed such culturally diverse films as "Sense and Sensibility" (from the Jane Austin novel), "The Ice Storm" (sexuality in 1970s Connecticut), "Ride with the Devil" (a Civil War epic), and "The Wedding Banquet" (about a gay Hong Kong immigrant in contemporary New York).
A melodious marriage of such vastly divergent elements, the film stays 100 percent true to all of them. The heartbreaking romantic regret played so powerfully between Chow and Yeoh (both of whom American audiences can finally see as brilliant performers outside of their action movie personas) could make a movie unto itself. As could the story of the teenage girl, to whom the focus gradually shifts as she bitterly struggles with issues of loyalty after a connection is revealed between herself and Jade Fox, an even more dangerous martial artist than the rest.
At times the extraordinary, otherworldly fights (the film's climax is a sword duel between Chow and Zhang atop the towering stalks of a swaying bamboo forest) don't entirely mesh with the emotional depth and maturity at the film's core. But all the picture's elements are so exhilarating to watch, it's a problem that is easily forgiven.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th January 2001
Box Office USA: $127.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $209M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Asia Union Film & Entertainment Ltd., China Film Co-Production Corporation, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, EDKO Film, Good Machine, Sony Pictures Classics, United China Vision, Zoom Hunt International Productions Company Ltd.
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 146 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.9 / 10
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien, Zhang Ziyi as Jen Yu (Mandarin) / Jiao Long (English), Chang Chen as Lo 'Dark Cloud' / Luo Xiao Hu, Sihung Lung as Sir Te, Cheng Pei-pei as Jade Fox, Fa Zeng Li as Governor Yu, Xian Gao as Bo, Yan Hai as Madame Yu, De Ming Wang as Police Inspector Tsai, Li Li as May, Chow Yun-Fat as Master Li Mu Bai