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Film Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Chinese period piece gets the CLUAS tongues wagging...

What a start to the year for all you film fans out there! Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a stunning film and surely a shoo-in for Best Foreign Film, if not Best Picture, for this year's Oscars.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon PosterDirector, Ang Lee has built up quite a canon of work. He seems to pick a genre of film and excel in it. His Austen adaptation, Sense And Sensibility, was probably the best I've seen. The Ice Storm, his 70s sexual politics pot-boiler, was a precursor to American Beauty and was one of my top 5 movies of the decade. He again turned convention on its head by directing last year's under-rated western, Ride With The Devil, set in the American Civil War. His new film is his first in Chinese since Eat Drink Man Woman and continues the pattern of genre exploration by taking on that most popular or Oriental exports, the martial arts movie.

This story entwines two love affairs, some majestic martial arts action and is filmed in glorious surroundings on location in China. The movie is set in 19th Century during the Qing Dynasty, a time of great wealth, glory and mysticism. Heroes and warriors who study the Wudan way of life are exulted but live a solitary life. The title of the film refers to the fact that these men and women of myth and legend conceal their true selves and live almost a double life - one of glory and another of sacrifice.

Woven with superb storytelling and subtle direction, Lee yet again displays a great affinity with his cast. Especially his actresses. From Emma Thompson to Sigourney Weaver's mesmerising performance in The Ice Storm, women are the central influence in his films. Again, that is the case here with Michelle Yeoh playing Yu Shu Lien, a beautiful woman who has never been allowed to express her love for the legendary warrior, Li Mu Bai, played immaculately by the great Hong Kong actor, Chow Yun-Fat. Also thrown into the mix is Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the governor's rebellious daughter, who has more to her than meets the eye and her errant boyfriend, Lo (Chang Chen), a thief and outcast who lives in the desert. The movie begins with Li Mu Bai's seeming retirement so that he can fulfil his unrequited love but a cyclone of theft, deceit, mystery and revenge means he fulfils his destiny in a very different way.

After a slow, almost austere, opening, the film explodes. A hooded thief tries to steal Li Mu Bai's mystical sword, The Green Destiny, resulting in a revelatory night-time chase by Yu Shu Lien over the roof-tops of Peking. They "fly" in graceful leaps, their superhuman flights of fancy leaving the viewer breathless and invigorated. The choreography, by martial arts master Yuen Wo Ping who oversaw The Matrix, is a wonder to behold as the long but never tedious scenes merge in a glory of colour, movement, invention and sheer vitality. With Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat performing so wonderfully well, they really do float like butterflies and sting like bees.

You wonder as you watch that maybe Lee has shot his bolt too soon? But, amazingly, the best is yet to come. There is a wonderful flash-back to the desert and the beginning of a love-affair. Another scene involves the young Jen faced with a bar full of overweight gangster types who severely underestimate what they are facing. As each man falls to the young woman and the inn is comically destroyed, the viewer can only marvel at what any of the great Western directors of the 40s and 50s would have made of this. Finally, the climactic duel on the tree-tops of a mystical forest is truly beautiful.

Emotionally wrought, action-packed yet intelligent and playful, I think Ang Lee has fashioned a modern classic. If the themes of love, revenge and adolescent angst are age-old, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon makes cinema seem young and fresh again. Go see.

Stephen McNulty

(bullet) Click here for another positive CLUAS review of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'
(bullet) 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' opened in the Dublin's IFC on January 5th and will hopefully be hitting all sorts of cinemas around the country in the near future


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