Emotion in Motion

With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee kicks the martial-arts movie to the art-house crowd.

The ways in which Lee's film differs from standard Chinese action-film practice may be a simple case of his particular concerns and personality, but it also may have to do with the models he's operating from. He has gone on record about how the martial arts films of his Taiwanese childhood made him fall in love with cinema, and those films are from an earlier era. In particular, he is emulating King Hu, the first Chinese director to achieve critical recognition outside of Asia; his influence can be seen throughout Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Hu, it must be added, died in 1997 in Pasadena, where he had lived for several years, while attempting to get American funding for his projects.)

Three particular elements of Hu's work are strongly reflected in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hu's films incorporated the dance and acrobatic moves of Chinese opera (as well as elements of Sergio Leone's spaghetti-western style) into a previously stiff style. He also recognized that the camera could dance, too; he combined traditionally stylized staging with sweeping camera movement and ingenious cutting. And he gave women equal or superior standing in the world of action. (As a sign of blatant homage to Hu, Lee uses actress Cheng Pei Pei -- who starred in Hu's breakthrough 1965 hit Come Drink With Me -- in a major role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) Thirty years later, with the exception of anomalies such as The Long Kiss Goodnight, Hollywood has yet to catch up with Hu on the issue of women.

It is ironic that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- which, in a poor field of competitors, is shaping up as one of the year's best films -- could be received with the least enthusiasm among diehard fans of its genre. What appears striking and new to most audiences is likely to be less riveting to those who have loved this form of cinema for years...and who may feel peevish that it's taken a relative interloper from the art houses to bring its glories to broader attention.

Michelle Yeoh meets her air apparent in the flying Zhang Ziyi.
Michelle Yeoh meets her air apparent in the flying Zhang Ziyi.

In truth, if longtime fans of martial-arts movies try to look objectively at Ang Lee's film, they will see a first-rank entry in the field, worthy of comparison to its forebears. And they should welcome anything that brings attention to their beloved genre. Meanwhile, the rest of you should go see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And then, assuming you like what you see, you should go out and rent Ronny Yu's 1992 masterpiece, The Bride With White Hair.

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