Everybody was Kung Fu fighting

Watching this film gave me that childish giddiness I haven’t felt since the original Star Wars.

Chances are, you won’t need to read to the end of this sentence to decide to watch director Ang Lee’s masterpiece of cinema. By now, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has garnered so much well-deserved hype that any self-respecting movie fan would be foolish not to see it.

For the uninitiated, allow me to go through the motions. The time: early 19th century China, a place of honor and strict tradition. The setting: luscious landscapes, from arid desert to green mountains with waving bamboo forests. The people: Li Mu Bai (ever brilliant Chow Yun-Fat, the Asian Robert DeNiro) wants out of the warrior biz. He’s a master swordsman who’s slain many bad guys with his mysteriously powerful Green Destiny saber (think Jedi sans martial arts), but now seeks retirement. When his sword is stolen from his assistant Yu Shu Lien (the magnificent Michele Yeoh), he suspects Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), the assassin who killed his master.

CTHD is first and foremost a fantasy martial arts film. With emphasis on the word “fantasy,” the characters at times defy gravity, so don’t be taken aback by the exorbitant amount of wire use. If you were impressed by The Matrix, you’ll be stunned at not only the stunts but the beauty that Lee manages to convey.

The sheer logistics of this film boggles my mind. It’s no coincidence that Wu-Ping took the reigns of choreographing this epic. He’s the best in the business, and after his brilliance with The Matrix, he’s soon to be a household name in the West as he already is in the East. Every kick and parry is like an intricate dance, every bound and flight a graceful ballet. From rooftops to treetops, from ponds to waterfalls, the amazement is simply boundless.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that Lee managed to balance this seemingly uncontrollable action with several engaging story lines. There is the complex relationship between Mu Bai and Shu Lien. Both warriors, they are stubbornly independent and have repressed their feelings for each other for years.

Meanwhile wealthy Sir Te’s daughter, Jen Yu, is discontent with her life and unhappy still with her arranged marriage. Enchanted by Shu Lien’s warrior code, Jen desires a life of her own. She’s played splendidly by 21 year old actress Ziyi Zhang, who brings a remarkable level of strength and confidence to her role, considering the film basically revolves around her. Her scenes especially are very delicate and well paced. It’s no wonder actually, given Lee’s track record (Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm).

The truly unique part of CTHD is how well it excels at being two films in one. Literally yin and yang, CTHD is simultaneously a chick flick and a Kung Fu blockbuster. Between blindingly fast fight scenes are interspersed touching (yes, that’s right, I said “touching”) love scenes. And I’m not talking token babes swooning for their protective karate-kicking men. I’m talking genuine equal-opportunity emotion between warrior woman and warrior man. Even more exhilarating is the female characters kicking at least as much butt as their male counterparts. That Lee could make such a radical transition is simply amazing. At the same time it was probably the best marriage of genres, giving emotional depth to a testosterone playing field.

I should mention that for those afraid of foreign films, yes it is subtitled. But don’t let that hinder you from seeing it. The dialog is Mandarin Chinese, which according to Lee and all the purists is the language of choice for a martial arts film. Apparently it’s more pleasing to the ear than the other dialects. It was all Greek to me, but it wasn’t that hard to follow as the sentences are well broken up into manageable chunks, and there’s more than enough jaw-dropping action to keep your attention.

Watching this film gave me that childish giddiness I haven’t felt since the original Star Wars. It’s veritable movie magic. So if you’re still reading, please stop immediately. Go see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Twice. The Kung Fu lover and novice alike won’t be disappointed.

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