Ang Lee, who's brought us such varied fare as The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil, shifts direction again with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a martial-arts film that, in more ways than one, stabs us in the heart. Filled with fight scenes that should leave audiences gasping for air, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is also a touching love story starring international superstars Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. If ever a Chinese movie (with subtitles) had a chance of seducing America's mainstream movie audience, this would appear to be it. The plot is pure pulp. Chow and Yeoh are the ancient-Chinese equivalent of white knights, too busy serving others to find any time for romance. Now, Chow plans to retire, which involves first handing over a 400-year-old sword known as the Green Destiny. But in a scene that sweeps both the actors and us off our feet, the sword is stolen, perhaps by the witch-like Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), perhaps by a rebellious young beauty named Jen (Zhang Ziyi). All four characters are masters in wu xia, which is how Fred Astaire would have fought if he'd been born in China during the Qing dynasty--bouncing off walls, leaping across rooftops, hovering in air. But Jen, despite her prowess, still has a few things to learn. Think Luke Skywalker. Or Princess Leia. Either way, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hinges on whether Jen, whose talents are growing by the minute, goes over to the dark side. That Lee and his co-scriptwriters have chosen to build the movie around a Chinese lass rather than a Chinese lad seems reason, all on its own, to stand up and cheer. But the filmmakers don't stop there. The movie is about what it means to be a woman, whether in ancient China, modern-day China or, for that matter, modern-day America. Not only do Yeoh and Zhang kick royal butt (often each other's), they struggle against the roles that have been assigned to women. Those death-defying swoops across the tiled roofs of Beijing are literally flights to freedom. Hence the movie's title, which refers to the pent-up power that could one day transform the world, if it's not doing so already. I found it interesting that the women in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are usually working against, rather than with, one another; sisters are powerful, but sisterhood isn't, apparently. Still, that's a minor problem in a movie that has women busting through life's glass ceiling like it was made of spun sugar. Lee sometimes has trouble meshing tones; Yeoh's dignified performance is left stranded a couple of times when the movie suddenly veers into comedy. But I guess that's the price you pay when you try to cross so many borders--East-West, male-female, youth-age, fantasy-reality, Bruce Lee and Ang Lee.
One wonders what the latter will come up with next.