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Wednesday January 17, 2001

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'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' more than just a martial arts movie

Headline Photo

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Rebellious, but gifted, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) kicks ass in one of the fight scenes of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The film is in theaters now

By Graig Uhlin

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Director Ang Lee combines action, romance in this sweeping epic

Grade: A-

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is one of the best martial arts films ever made - except it is not a martial arts film. Rest assured, there are plenty of good ol' fashioned ass-whoopings that go on - heavily stylized ones at that - but it took the acclaimed director of "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility" to finally ressurect this film genre from the badly dubbed depths to which it had sunk.

"Crouching Tiger" is more accurately a love story, one that just happens to be between two martial arts warriors - giving the film what is generally referred to as "crossover appeal."

The film's plot is simple enough, even downright complicated by martial arts standards. The two star-crossed warriors - Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (an exceptional Michelle Yoeh), bound by an unspoken love but kept apart by her duty to her late husband - hunt down the fugitive Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who is suspected of stealing the Green Destiny, an ancient sword with an Excalibur-like mythos.

The narrative all comes in the form of subtitles - "Crouching Tiger" was filmed in Mandarin Chinese - but few people, unfortunately, will pay much attention to the scrolling text when presented with the phenomenal fight scenes. Director Ang Lee, although a bit indebted to "The Matrix" and even Jackie Chan, who brought the karate chop to new levels, has his characters fight while literally flying from rooftop to rooftop, while clutching to swaying treetops or skipping across the surface of water. These warriors defy gravity and the audience's expectations. Their lightning-quick, white-knuckle-inducing moves and dazzling gymnastics makes the proverbial jaw drop in awe.

The film's success, though, does not originate in the movie's physical theatrics - although this is one of the more visually pleasing films in recent memory. Rather, "Crouching Tiger" triumphs as a result of its genre-breaking narrative, as a result of what falls between the fight scenes. What a strong narrative allows the film to do is root the stunning fights in the emotions and tensions that exist between the characters, so that when Li Mu Bai and the Jade Fox duke it out, the stakes are raised by the shared history between the two (she killed Li Mu Bai's mentor). This is not fighting for fighting's sake.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" also feels distinctly like an epic. The warriors of martial arts films usually abide by a code that originates from thousands of years ago. These heroes are steeped in history and tradition, and the film, too, as a result, seems to have a history beyond itself. It feels heavy with the weight of history, in other words.

At times, though, this weightiness is laugh-inducing, as the film momentarily lapses into martial arts stereotypes. For all its genre-defying qualities, there are some aspects "Crouching Tiger" seems unable to escape from, and, unfortunately, it causes the film to seem undeservedly cheesy at certain moments.

"Crouching Tiger" is a film that takes itself completely seriously, as it should, as it has earned the right to do, and anyone willing to shed the preconceived notions one has before watching a martial arts film will truly be swept away by this masterpiece of artistry.

Graig Uhlin can be reached at