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|March 16, 2001||
The scent of a woman
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang
Chen, Sihung Lung, Cheng Pei Pei
Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a master craftsman, finds his treasured weapon, the Green Destiny, stolen. He had entrusted his holy sword to his friend and gifted martial artist Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), with whom he shares an unspoken love.
Shu Lien chases after the masked thief, the two leaping over rooftops and walls with amusing disdain for gravity. It turns out that the thief is a woman, the fiesty Jen (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of the governor.
And the scales tip Jen-wards. At first glance, a spoilt heiress about to be married to a man of her father's choice, her character unravels, bit by fascinating bit: The passion and the banked fires that stop short of combustion within her... and her affinity and prodigious skill with dangerous toys like the Green Destiny.
Also on the scene is her suspicious governess, who bears an amazing resemblance to dreaded killer Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), whom Mu Bai seeks revenge from -- because she had poisoned his master.
In Jen, Shu Lien recognises a kindred spirit: Engaged to someone she does not like, when she actually longs to be with her lover, Lo (Chang Chen). Shu, in fact, loves Mu Bai with all her heart. Her problem -- and that goes for him, too -- is in expressing it.
Which brings us to the crux of the film: a search. For true love. For the sword, which stands for all that is good and right. For Jade Fox, who stands for all that is wrong...
In keeping with the search theme, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is an apt dreamscape.
Take Peter Pau's camera, which is, admittedly, a loving caress: To the silent beauty of the desert; the eloquent verdance of the forests; the playful sibilance of streams; the indescribable grandeur of misty mountains.
But it is when you get to the action sequences that you realise Pau and choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (whose earlier work includes Oscar-winning The Matrix) are up to sweet mischief. For every fluid, gravity-defying wall-to-wall, tree-to-tree leap, for every crouching leap, somersault, for every lightning clash, clang, whoosh of the sword, Pau and Yuen Wo Ping duel it out. And have fun while at it.
Take the film's centrepiece -- the majestically shot desert love story of the two free spirits of the film: Jen and the roughnecked bandit Lo. Though vibrant and alive even in the quietest of the sequences, it is nevertheless a long pause from the actual love story between Mu Bai and Shu Lien.
Which points towards director Ang Lee's (Sense And Sensibility, Eat Drink Man Woman) restraint. You get the feeling that he has, in drawing out the sub love story and the carefully planned kickass action sequences, detracted from the essence of the main love story.
That's rather like saying a cake is sweet (considering that martials arts is the main draw of the film). But then, too much of it is not necessarily a good thing, is it? Yes, the first sequence -- the chase between Shu Lien and Jen -- steals your breath away. But when you get to the fourth, fifth and/or the sixth (depending on how you count the fights), you wish Lee had concentrated more on the central love story.
The wealth of feeling and the veiled emotion zinging back and forth between Shu and Mu Bai are obvious. But in not exploring it, it is almost as if Ang Lee were afraid to open that particular Pandora's Box. With the result that consummate artistes like Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are almost sidelined.
The script, too, tends to bow under weighty, humourless philosophical discussions. If you are the kind to judge a work of art for its comic relief, you will not find it here. A great love story Crouching Tiger…is not.
What you will find though is the star of the film, Zhang Ziyi. Here is raw talent and cinematic charisma. From a dreamy ingenue to a ferocious, fearless warrior, Ziyi's transition is effortlessly dramatic.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is that it's ruled by women all through -- right from Shu Lien and Jen to Jade Fox. Laudable, that, considering martial arts has always been solely a male domain.
That is the ground that Ang Lee breaks. And should be admired for.
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