The term "transcendent" is perhaps the ultimate compliment that can be paid to a work of art, but it's one that risks overuse. I'll run that risk, however, and apply it to Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," an enchanting rhapsody that is no doubt the greatest cinematic triumph of the last year - and would hold that title in any year.
The Golden Globes gave "Tiger" a chance to prove its worth. The film won two awards: Best Foreign Film and Best Director.
What makes "Tiger" such a vibrant work is its ability to break free of any boundary or definition. Like the characters who give the film its heart, "Tiger" defies the laws of gravity. Though filmed in the director's native Chinese, never is the story hard to follow. Subtitles are helpful, but they aren't entirely necessary.
Lee's newest film breaks cultural boundaries much like 1998's "Life is Beautiful," another phenomenal foreign film that scours the depths of humanity and portrays it in all of its forms.
Adding to the universality of "Tiger" are the exquisite cello compositions, courtesy of the brilliant Yo-Yo Ma. The music adds another dimension to the storyline and to the growth of its characters, creating a masterpiece that surpasses all cultural and linguistic barriers.
The film is a testament to the power of the human will and its ability to overcome any obstacle. And oh, how poetic it is. It emphasizes the "arts" in martial arts.
The plot, written by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung, echoes the way we live our lives. The events that occur are quite simple, complicated only by human emotions that always seem to get in the way. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is a warrior who has vowed to avenge his master's death at the hands of Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei). He asks longtime friend and fellow warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to return his sword, the Green Destiny, to Sir Te (Lung Sihung), the wealthy district governor and an old friend of his father.
There Yu meets Sir Te's sheltered daughter, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a woman dealing with her upcoming arranged marriage but dreaming of living the exciting life represented by Yu. These characters, their histories and complexities all emerge within the first few minutes of "Tiger."
But then something wonderful happens. Something amazing, something majestic, something that transforms "Tiger" from a few reels of celluloid into an experience that sends the viewer's heart into orbit.
A disguised warrior bandit - a woman - steals the Green Destiny, and Yu tries to apprehend her. The ensuing fight scene features the two performers delicately leaping over rooftops and up the sides of buildings. The most remarkable thing about this scene is that none of the stunts utilize computer technology; the only digitizing occurred in post-production, to remove images of the wires and harnesses that enabled the cast to fly. As choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping (the man who made Keanu Reeves airborne in "The Matrix"), this fight scene makes the two warriors look like a Fred and Ginger (or Ginger and Ginger, to be more precise) for the Mandarin martial arts set.
The scene functions like the best of musical numbers: The fight sequences don't stop the story, they further it. Lee makes these fights so graceful that they never appear violent. Instead, they are fully textured and crafted in such a psychologically profound manner that they utterly exhilarate viewers. Applause is a necessary response at the scene's end. Lee leaves the audience thirsting for more, and he delivers.
But the rich storyline does more than just connect the dots between fight sequences. Lee's past work in both China and America proves him to be a master of the domestic frontier, through such movies as "The Wedding Banquet," the superior "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility." And like the latter, "Tiger" demonstrates the same type of reserved propriety found in stories of Jane Austen's era.
What grants "Tiger" much dramatic and even spiritual heft is the dance that occurs between Yun-Fat and Yeoh, an unstated tango of mutually repressed passion. Yun-Fat may be an international movie star, but in this country, he's more easily identified with the movie stars of yesteryear, combining Gary Cooper's stoicism with Cary Grant's charm.
Yeoh's performance equals Yun-Fat's every step of the way. It is a mature and deeply felt one that elevates the expectations of the genre. Ziyi's rapturous work complements Yeoh's sublime performance. These two are the film's heart and soul.
First and foremost, "Tiger" praises the empowerment of women. Whether they fight for good or for evil, they have the choice and the strength to do so. Yet even more than its visual splendor or feminist ideology, the film celebrates the glory and triumph of one's inner journey.
Hypnotic, sensual and soulful, "Tiger" is the year's best film. The characters might leap and fly, but in the end, it's the audience that soars. .Archives/2001/February/5/