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7 January, 2001

TIGERS AND DRAGONS: THE ART
OF MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES

I'm happy that movie critics around the world are raving about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the new film by Taiwan-born director Ang Lee. But I don't think it's the best martial arts movie ever made.

It has critics clamoring "The best film of the year!" but martial arts film fans may go home a little disappointed and thinking the movie was slow.
Lee is a smart director who has film credits on both sides of the Pacific, from the Taiwanese family stories of "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" to the US productions "Sense and Sensibility" (bringing Jane Austen's novel to the screen) and "The Ice Storm" (a dark, 1970s look at suburban American life). All his movies have been well-received, and the young filmmaker - he's still just 45 - has already established a winning track record.

But "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is nothing like his previous work. It's a lush, epic film that returns Lee to his Chinese roots. And, it's a martial arts movie. Or is it?

Mind you, it's not like the kung fu movies of the 1970s ushered in by the spectacular but short career of Bruce Lee, the first martial-arts superstar to cross from Hong Kong to the US. It's also not even like the current wave of martial arts films made popular around the globe by contemporary superstars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

It's a different kind of martial arts film, one that has critics clamoring "The best film of the year!" but martial arts film fans may go home a little disappointed and thinking the movie was slow.

That's because "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a genre film deeply rooted in trashy, B-movie popular culture, but elevated by Ang Lee into a work of high cinematic art. It's an art film, not a "chop-socky" movie, as the '70s kung fu flicks used to be called. There's action, but the movie's more than an excuse to string together nothing but fight scenes. The aesthetic tension is similar to elevating country-music to an opera (hey, maybe that's a good idea....).

The story is a fantasy set in historic China, about Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat in his first martial arts role), a warrior who decides to retire from his life of violent fighting, and gives his famous green sword to a nobleman as a gift. But when the sword is stolen by an insolent young practitioner of the martial arts, Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), Li and his longtime friend and fellow warrior, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), go after it.

The movie's chockfull of gorgeous settings, from the Forbidden City within Beijing to the vast expanse of the Goby Desert (reminding viewers how huge a country China is), and it's also laced with several intense and unforgettable martial arts fight scenes. But it's also a touching tale of two pairs of star-crossed lovers: Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, who have never expressed their love for each other; and the parallel relationship of Jen Yu and Lo, a Mongol outlaw played by Chen Chang, which is explained in a lengthy flashback mid-movie.

Ciritcs love the film because it speaks their language - it includes the elements of tragedy, aching, unrequited romance, moral crisis, self-conscious directing, an elevated sense of storytelling, grand production values and epic plots.

But many of these critics who are hailing it as a revelation in action films have probably never watched most of Jet Li's incredible body of Chinese films, all made before "Lethal Weapon 4" and "Romeo Must Die" helped make him a US matinee draw. They've probably never seen Michelle Yeoh, the biggest woman movie star in Southeast Asia for more than a decade, before she co-starred in the James Bond blockbuster, "Tomorrow Never Dies." For fans of Yeoh, however, "Crouching Tiger" may truly be a disappointment. Despite her matinee billing alongside Chow Yun Fat, Yeoh doesn't get to show off her balletic, gymnastic fighting skills as fans want. Instead, the focus of the film is actually on Ziyi Zhang, a newcomer to martial arts who certainly has a promising career in the genre if she chooses that path.

Don't get me wrong here - I loved the film, but I also happen to love down and dirty kung fu films too. I've seen enough to know that many less artsy martial arts films, including ones by Jet Li ("The Enforcer" for one) also have the elements of tragedy, unrequited romance, moral crisis, production values, grand and epic storytelling and all of that. And though "Crouching Tiger" has plenty of fight scenes, many of the moves are so fantastic - running so effortlessly and weightlessly that the characters can fly and skip across water, or fight balanced upon the thinnest of bamboo branches.

I thought about "Crouching Tiger"'s art-film credentials as I watched another, much older, artsy martial arts movie, Akira Kurosawa's 1954 "Seven Samurai" a week after seeing "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

The film is another epic, grand, tragic martial arts film, only set in Japan and featuring the fighting skills of samurais with their swords. "Seven Samurai" is, like "Crouching Tiger," deliberate in its pacing, yet equally dynamic in its fight sequences. It's about a farming village in feudal Japan that goes out to hire freelance samurai who will defend its citizens against a group of marauding bandits. The movie inspired the 1960 western remake "The Magnificent Seven" starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen as gunslingers hired by a Mexican village to fight off bandits.

As some of the samurai are inevitably killed, including (I'm giving away the plot here, but let's face it, it's a 40-year-old film) the wonderful character played by a young and gutsy Toshiro Mifune, I couldn't help but think of the deeply moving tragedy that underlies "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and felt a need to see it again.

I may yet come away thinking it's the best film of 2000.

You can read about the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and even see some clips from it and interview videos with Ang Lee, online on the movie's Web site (it requires a fast Internet connection, preferably a DSL or cable modem connection).

 


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