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Taiwan/Hong Kong/USA/China 2000
Directed by
Ang Lee
120 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Synopsis: Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) a famous but world-weary warrior, entrusts Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to take care of his sword the Green Destiny. A young princess Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) becomes involved in their world and their adventures begin.

Ang Lee's international directorial career took off with the success of The Wedding Banquet, a comedy of manners set in contemporary Taiwan, and led to a diverse range of acclaimed English-language projects, including The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility. Renowned for his versatility, here he takes on the Chinese historical romance in a style we know best of all from directors such as Zhang Yimou and He Ping - a court or upper-class setting, dynastic upheaval, star-crossed lovers, and gorgeous visuals with richly coloured props and costumes contrasted against monochrome backgrounds. Crouching Tiger has all this (and has Chinese dialogue) but Lee is now-well-Westernised and the cultural distance one experiences with the films of his mainland counterparts is not apparent here. Lee has internalised the conventions of Hollywood and this is a true crossover-over film, essentially a Western (I couldn't help thinking of John Ford), complete with bar-room brawl and an attack on the wagon-train, clad with the appearance of a Chinese art-house film.

Hybridisation is the essence of creation but the important aspect of it is the transformation of the elements into something new. Lee could have produced something of interest in this mix of East and West but has instead given us a very safe and very bland product for a mainstream audience. Amazingly, it has garnered no end of critical superlatives. Yes, the production values are high and it is skilfully made...but wait on. The dialogue (at least in sub-titled form) is leaden, the plot cumbersome (including an extended tangent which follows the love affair between Jen and Lo (a Johnny Depp-type outlaw), the martial arts sequences are all computer-assisted (one can almost hear Jackie Chan scoffing, not least at the flying sequences, fight choreography being by Yuen Woo Ping whose aerial proclivities can also be seen in The Matrix), and being story-, rather than character-driven, events occur obligingly with characters appearing and disappearing on cue.

The strengths of this film are Chow Yun-Fat as the Taoist warrior and Michelle Yeoh as his martial companion and unrequited lover. Individually they provide substance.  Zhang Zi Yi, who plays the other main character, Jen, and who was perfect as the dreamy country girl in the recently-screened The Road Home, is rather lightweight, (literally and metaphorically), here. Relationships are Lee's home territory but by submerging them in the action genre, no matter how tastefully done, he has largely wasted his time and talent.




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