The martial arts fairy tale "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" may be the most over rated movie of the year-- and I say this after having enjoyed darn near every minute of it.
But the buzz in the critical hive this winter was that in the year 2000, there were no worthy films. So, come Oscar and Top Ten List time, they were all looking for somebody to love. This yearning seems to have settled on two very good late in the year movies-- "Traffic" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-- and one pretty lousy one, "Chocolat," this year's entry in the all-devout-Christians-are-hypocrites sweepstakes.
But the American critics who are acting as though "Dragon" is the result of some highly original vision are wrong. Hong Kong legend Run Run Shaw-- who gave Bruce Lee his big screen opportunity-- did this kind of thing 30 and 40 years ago. Director Ang Lee himself points out to anyone who cares to listen, that the two most spectacular scenes in the movie-- a fight scene that takes apart a two-story tavern, and the now famous fight between Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun Fat 60 feet up in the trees-- are tributes to legendary Chinese action movies by director King Hu. Of course American critics would say, "King Who?"
The critics are also using the wrong comparisons for this movie-- using Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in pace and tone is much more reminiscent of the films of the Japanese master, Akria Kurosawa ("Seven Samurai")-- though Kurosawa was much more grounded in reality, or in Shakespeare.
"Dragon" is based on the 1930s novel by Wang Du Lu, but the script by James Schamus, Wang Huiling and Tsai Kuojung also shows the more modern influences of "Star Wars" and even "The Matrix" (whose fight choreographer, Yuen Wo-ping worked on the picture) along with countless Westerns and bodice-ripping romance novels.
That said, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a captivating, thoroughly enjoyable, romantic romp that features the best single (20 minute) action scene in many moons.
The story is about two veteran warriors-- played by international star Chow Yun Fat, ("Anna and the King") and Michelle Yeoh (Jackie Chan's "Supercop" and the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies") who are masters of a gravity defying secretive school of martial arts. They must defeat the nefarious purposes of some enemies from their past, while keeping two young lovers with potential-- particularly a very talented princess (Zhang Ziyi) on the straight and narrow.
The story sweeps from the brutal Gobi desert, to the beautiful Forbidden City, to a secret mountain fortress where warriors are trained. Lee, who is known for exactingly recreating real times and places in movies like "Sense and Sensibility" and the under rated Civil War gem, "Ride with the Devil," does a wonderful job in making these more fanciful setting seem real.
While this is generally light entertainment, there are some noble themes. Unlike in "Titanic" the young lovers are not transplanted Gen-X brats whose self involvement is venerated by the movie. There is a price to be paid for rebelling against tradition and their outlaw ways. And antithetical to the Baby Boomer ethic of self actualization, in "Dragon," the old not only try to guide the young, they sacrifice themselves for the good of the next generation.
The PG-13 rating is not only for the copious-- but not gory-- action scenes, but for some love scenes that include some clothed groping, and some implied, but not shown, nudity and sex.
Zhang Ziyi is wonderfully self assured in her first major role, and is even able to match up in the fight scenes with her two elders, Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, who are masters at this sort of thing.
As the aging warrior who is weary but willing to pick up his sword again if the cause is just, Chow Yun Fat, is more reminiscent of Yul Brynner in "The Magnificent Seven" than he was as the King of Siam in "Anna and the King." Given a chance to do more than kick bad guys, Michelle Yeoh is graceful, expressive, and immensely appealing.
Critics are not the only ones loving this movie. The fact that it has moved UP in the charts the longer it has been out, proves that word of mouth from pleased customers is the best marketing plan.