The disappearance of a magical jade sword spurs a breathtaking quest for the missing treasure. Li (Chow Yun-Fat) is embittered by the loss of his jade sword, and his unrequited pursuit of Yu (Michelle Yeoh) is further complicated by the mysterious intrusion of an assassin. The identity of the assassin is gradually unveiled as another poignant tale of love begins to ravel with that of Li and Yu against the backdrop of Western China's magnificent landscape.
Remember the magic of the movies? Something of an unfashionable phrase these days, but one glimpse of the ethereal genius of Ang Lee's first venture into martial arts cinema and you know you are witness to real movie magic. This is not about the suspension of disbelief, quite the opposite. It demands belief and repays it in full.
Based on the wuxia pian — a code of chivalry, mystical martial arts and freedom of the spirit that has fuelled Chinese writing and Hong Kong filmmaking for years — of Wang Du Lu's five-part novel (written in the 1930s), the plot is complex and far-fetched. Warriors sworn into the rituals of duty, the theft of a legendary sword called the Green Destiny and sworn vengeance for a murdered master are spun together in a serio-comic
web reminiscent of TV's Monkey or The Water Margin, but with more vivid characters suffering torments more pungently real. This is a world of order and obedience, where the young aristocrat Jen (Ziyi) yearns for self-expression and warriors Lu Mu Bai (Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) bury their mutual passion in the service of the law, Giang Hu. Disobeying the rules of the genre straight out, Lee opens with 10 minutes of whispery dialogue and loaded glances. But the preamble is an illusion, out of the quiet darts an extraordinary vision, a battle across the Peking rooftops as two opponents glide up the walls, leap between buildings and dance and spin in dizzying physical combat.
Lee has created a film about liberation — from the shackles of romantic convention imposed by 18th century Chinese society, and from the conventions of moviemaking themselves. This is an extraordinary visual experience; the rules of behaviour may be strict and containing but the rules of gravity have been thrown out the window. Utilising the skills of Yuen Woo-ping, the man who spun Keanu Reeves every which way in The Matrix, the martial arts here are a breathtaking blend of skill and grace, violence and poetry. Unlike the western or war genres, the point of kung-fu movies is to revel in the processes of action, the execution, not the victory. Many of the fights here, swooningly concocted with high-wire work and edited to soaring drum beats, are between good and good. Moral distinctions are secondary. It is about self-expression. As Jen and lover Lo (Chen Chang) tussle and tease over a stolen comb in a flashback, it is nothing more than frenetic, artful foreplay.
A duel shot among the upper boughs of a bamboo grove, bending and flexing with the willowy branches, was born in the childhood imagination of Ang Lee. There is an otherworldly eloquence to the choreography — Lee describes the film as a "dream of China... that probably never existed" — the film seeming to operate on a spiritual plane. A fairytale imbued with modern neuroses. Throughout a gruelling eight-month shoot on location in China, Lee was merciless in his drive to create this impressionistic world — the script was to be spoken not in English or Cantonese but Mandarin (which none of the cast actually spoke) creating a cerebral as well as a physical challenge.
The scenery is epic yet abstract (stretching from the Gobi Desert to the bamboo forests of Zhejiang Province) and the music, by Tan Dun, a subtle mix of Chinese and western traditions. As divergent as it appears to be from Lee's catalogue of talk-heavy domestic dramas shuddering with subtext, Crouching Tiger fits the bill. Lee himself described it as Sense And Sensibility meets Bruce Lee. Michelle Yeoh is "sense", the model of repressed emotion; in contrast, Zhang Ziyi is all impulse, rebelling against the constraints of an arranged marriage. Female empowerment is a familiar theme in many of Lee's movies (and also in the traditions of wuxia since it first appeared onscreen in Burning Of The Red Lotus Monastery in 1928) and here it is woven into the fabric of the story. These girls rock. Yeoh is a master practitioner of martial arts and effortlessly expounds the complex moves with studied grace while Ziyi, as lithe and slender as a ballerina, explodes with an emotional force, capturing the elemental mix of beauty and power.
There are also fascinating inferences bubbling beneath the balletic duelling and unrequited passions: Lee is a native of Taiwan (his parents were executed by the communists) and the subjugation of the individual can be seen to mirror China's attempt to subsume his homeland into the mother country.
Crouching Tiger achieves what all great films must. Whatever your viewpoint, it is transcendent a cinematic wonder that exceeds the necessities of plot. A martial arts opus packed with emotional resonance. A foreign language film that kicks arse.