Movie (Starburst Reviews) Movie Reviews by Alan Jones
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
selected from Starburst #268

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Dec 2000 (US) • Cert PG-13
Jan 2001 (UK) • Cert 12

Chow Yun-Fat as Li Mu Bai

A martial arts masterpiece from a director famed for sensitive social commentary? You bet


Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Lung Sihung, Cheng Pei-Pei, Li Fazeng

Last year's Science Fiction hit The Matrix was the first time general movie-goers had ever witnessed acrobatic Asian-style fight choreography taken to the balletic state-of-the-art nth degree and finessed further by miraculous digital tinkering. However, for most Starburst readers, that Keanu Reeves starrer, as stupendous as it was, was very much a case of been there and seen that in the countless Oriental adventures stretching as far back as Seven Samurai and A Touch of Zen. Superstar Bruce Lee's ground-breaking martial artistry, the Baby Cart/Shogun Assassin and Mr Vampire series and Jackie Chan and John Woo's startling stunt work represent some of the other important quantum leaps vital to the genre's evolution from the merely transcendental to the action-heavy sagas of today.

Back in 1981 director Tsui Hark redefined the martial arts fantasy with Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain by taking on board the technical advances made by the West in the wake of Star Wars. Now, in a similar conjuring trick, Taiwanese director Ang Lee (after making three English language pictures including Sense and Sensibility) has taken a pre-World War II novel, set it in the early 19th Century locale of his favourite movies, layered on legendary fantasy, soul-consuming revenge and philosophical teachings and crafted the most exquisite thematic synthesis of every great Eastern epic ever made.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the title refers to the hero lurking inside us all waiting for the right reason to appear) is nothing short of monumental on every artistic front. It's a splendidly resonant fairy tale loaded with high-tone romance, palpable emotion and significant sacrifice. It shows Lee in complete narrative command and at the top of his vibrant film-making form. The acting by charismatic Chow Yun Fat and, especially, ex-Bond Girl Michelle Yeoh and The Road Home's Zhang Ziyi packs a diamond-hard eloquence. And its thrilling visual style, unquestionably the new seismic landmark by which all others will be judged, will set your eyes on fire. Guaranteed.

The quintessentially Chinese melodrama revolves around martial arts wizard Li Mu Bai (Chow) finally hanging up his magical sword, known as the Green Destiny, to devote the rest of his life to meditation after being unable to save his late master from the demonic skills of the witch-like criminal Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei). His trusted close friend, would-be lover, and warrior in gravity-defying Wudan Mountain fighting skills Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) coaxes him into giving the sword as a mark of respect to powerful Beijing politician Governor Yu (Li Fazeng). But when it's stolen by his masked daughter Jen (Zhang), a disciple of Jade Fox who is masquerading as her governess, Li arrives in the city to take his festering revenge.

With a police inspector and his kick-boxing daughter thrown into the plot, along with the impressed Li offering Jen a chance to train in Wudan combat and selflessness, and a doomed romance between Jen and desert outlaw Dark Cloud (Chang Chen) told in a lengthy, lyrical and feisty flashback, the spectacular scene is set for the inevitable Li/Jade Fox face-off where everyone's destiny converges in symbolic tragedy and spiritual uplift.

A moving and universal theme, well drawn characters, beautiful sets and sumptuous costumes, lush moodiness, atmospheric pathos and magnificent cinematography, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon holds every trump card in one single unbeatable hand. However, it's the amazing fight sequences that will etch themselves indelibly on your memory. Expertly choreographed by Matrix master Yuen Wo-Ping as elaborately energetic ballets, the protagonists run up walls, dance over rooftops, spiral over buildings, propel themselves through the air as if fired by cannons, float through forests, alight on trees and battle as the branches bend with their weight. Breathtaking and brilliantly executed, superbly augmented with a striking score by symphony percussionist Tan Dun, you've never seen anything like it before in either the annals of Fant-Asia or Hollywood knock-off.

Ending not as you'd expect with a slam-bang furious fist fest but on a wonderfully affecting moment where unconditional love is declared in absolute terms, Ang Lee's inspirationally bold and haunting tale is one of the finest fantasies ever produced in the Far East.

Move over A Chinese Ghost Story and Enter the Dragon.

Starburst rating: 10+ / 10
Alan Jones

Reviews © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction