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'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' a gripping, poetic tale
(CNN) -- Even though it contains some of the most spectacular martial-arts sequences in movie history, Ang Lee's enigmatic epic, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is a great deal more than a mere kung-fu picture. This sweeping, dream-like fable is a near-masterpiece, replete with marvelously fanciful images and a touching love story.
Even if you're not predisposed toward movies that feature people jumping high in the air and walloping each other in the stomach, you should still see it.
Lee, best known in this country for 1997's pretentious social commentary, "The Ice Storm," insists that you accept a number of startling abilities on the part of his central characters. His biggest accomplishment is that you do, and quickly surrender your reservations in favor of a thoroughly enchanting ride.
Rest assured that this is a unique cinematic experience.
The film is "a dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan," Lee writes in the movie's production notes. It's "an attempt to learn a perfect form of filmmaking, where the images are like dance and music."
The results may not be "perfect," but that's as good an explanation as you're likely to find of what's going on here.
A stolen sword
Chow Yun-Fat stars as Li Mu Bai, one of the most formidable martial arts experts in ancient China. He arrives at a small compound that's run by his friend, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). We can see that the two have deep romantic feelings for each other, but they do their utmost to suppress them. Li asks that Yu carry his legendary battle sword, The Green Destiny, to Beijing, where she'll give it to an aging wise man for safekeeping.
Li, like many a Western gunfighter, is trying to retire from the game. But he'll end up in some amazing fights before it's all over.
Li can't deliver the sword himself because he's off to pay his respects to his late master, who years ago was poisoned by Jade Fox, a mysterious warrior. Jade Fox turns out to be a strange, magical creature who's developed some pretty crafty fighting moves of her own. In Beijing, Yu meets up with Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a teen-age girl who has secret ties to Jade Fox.
Eventually, The Green Destiny is stolen, and a search is on to retrieve it. To reveal anything more would spoil a considerably surprising film.
The characters swirl around each other throughout the movie, with Jen coming to play a pivotal role in the narrative. Lee blunders a little by inserting a lengthy flashback that deals with Jen and her lover, Lo (Chang Chen), a petty thief who lives in the desert. It's a funny, tender interlude, but it could just as easily have appeared as the first act. Along with some windy expository dialogue in the opening scenes, that's the only directorial miscue.
However, the aspect of the production that everyone will be talking about is a series of martial-arts battles that play like a cross between "Enter the Dragon" (1973) and Jean Cocteau's unearthly fairy tale, "Beauty and the Beast" (1946).
The first fight, which springs to sudden, exquisite life after a rather dull opening, surely will elicit rounds of applause from audiences the world over -- action, after all, has become cinema's universal language. If it were always this remarkable, that wouldn't be such a bad thing.
A marvelously physical kung-fu fight turns into an altogether different entity when one of the combatants leaps against the side of a building, then runs down the wall -- length-wise! Then the two fighters float about 15 feet in the air, where the contest continues as they leap from rooftop to rooftop without even breaking their stride. It's an extraordinary piece of goosebump-inducing whimsy.
Lee's cinematic language is very much of his own making. The fights, which are choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, are bodily representations of the characters' emotional viewpoints. This is a truly visionary action film with a human heartbeat.
The cherry on top is a final battle that takes place with two fighters flailing at each other while they run and jump along the tree tops of an ancient forest. Though too long, this is one of the best films of the year, as distinctive a piece of filmmaking as you'll see in these increasingly jaded times. Sit back and enjoy.
There's fighting galore in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but it's not bloody. It really is more like a fairy tale than a violent blockbuster. Rated PG-13. 119 minutes.
Review: Passion served cold in 'The Ice Storm'
Time.com: Interview with Crouching Tiger director Ang Lee July 25, 2000
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