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Chow Yun-fat--sporting a Qing Dynasty queue and a traditional black cassock--pulls a long needle out of his neck, stares at it and realizes it was poisoned. His face shows a powerful man's strength, anger, resignation, all in the flash of a microsecond. Then somebody yells, Cut! and Chow, his face breaking into an idiot grin, sings a snatch of the jaunty theme song from Shanghai Beach, a Hong Kong TV series in which he starred years ago. The crew at the Beijing Film Studio grins audibly. Later, an American visitor asks Chow if he'd dare to be so blithe on a Hollywood set. He immediately goes still, a tableau of anticipatory machismo. Slowly he pulls an imaginary needle from his neck. Another ferocious pause. Then, gaily: I'm siiiing-in' in the rain... Eighteen-hour-a-day shooting schedules grind a body and spirit down. Overtime has become routine in the making of Chow's new film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which co-stars Michelle Yeoh, Cheng Peipei and newcomer Zhang Ziyi, and is directed by Ang Lee, the Taiwanese who had an international success with the 1995 Sense and Sensibility. Somebody has to be in charge of morale-boosting; Chow knows how to ease the strain with adroit song-and-dance. Life is so short, says the man with the sexiest scowl since Clint Eastwood's. Why not be happy?

Crouching Tiger is a Mandarin-language martial-arts drama, based on the novel by Wang Dulu and set in the 19th century. Chow plays legendary warrior Li Mubai, possessor of a jade sword called Green Destiny. He gives the sword to his beloved, the martial artist Yui Hsuilien (Yeoh). Naturally, someone steals Green Destiny--it must also stand for envy--and suspicion falls on Jade Fox (Cheng), the scheming governess of May Wong (Zhang), a curious, impressionable beauty about to be given away in loveless marriage. There is perfidy, banditry and lots of kung fu fighting. The movie could be really neat--a plot of Shakespearean complexity peppered with fast, fatal action. It is so eagerly awaited that Hong Kong producer Wong Jing is apparently not waiting. He has already shot a similar film, Chow says, for Lunar New Year release. (Crouching Tiger doesn't open in Asia until July 15.)

Exclusive, online-only excerpts of the TIME interview

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You want suspense, poignancy, derring-do? You will find it in the cast and crew of Crouching Tiger. Scattered throughout the far-flung movie world, the three stars, the director, the cinematographer and the martial-arts director have come home to a town that none of them has lived in. In a way, they are all overseas Chinese. Consider:

- . Thanks to his steely presence in '80s melotraumas like A Better Tomorrow, City on Fire and The Killer, Chinese men were suddenly the coolest in the world. He made the longcoat as chic as an Armani jacket, and the toothpick something more than an aid to after-dinner dental hygiene. Then, in 1995, Hong Kong's top dramatic star split for Los Angeles and became Hollywood's first successful Asian leading man in 80 years. Now, after starring with Jodie Foster in Anna and the King, he's back, with another language to conquer.

- . Born in Malaysia to English-speaking ethnic Chinese parents, Yeoh was an instant Hong Kong action star in 1985's Yes, Madam--beautiful, poised, and she does her own stunts! She dished it out splendidly with Jackie Chan in Supercop, and in 1997 helped Tomorrow Never Dies become the top-grossing James Bond film ever. A luminous Hollywood career seemed assured, yet for two years she has marked time, living mostly in distant Baltimore with her cardiologist fiancÚ. She had to return there in September when she tore a ligament while shooting Crouching Tiger.

- . The girl with the thunderbolt kick in Chang Cheh's 1968 Golden Swallow, Cheng flashed her fists, a whip and that stinging smile in some terrific action films. She emigrated to L.A. in 1971, made a few films and hosted a U.S. cable show, Peipei's Time. At 53, the Chinese native has returned, still flintily ravishing.

- . He's directed more movies than I have, Lee says, and better ones. Yuen directed Jackie Chan's 1978 breakthrough films (Snake in Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master), and led Yeoh through some impossible stunts in Wing Chun. The son of a martial-arts actor and brother of four action choreographers, Yuen is as Hong Kong as they come--except when he goes abroad. He supervised the supercool fight scene in this year's smash The Matrix. Now he is putting Chow on a flying wire, the first time the tough-guy hero has done his own action stunts.

- . A camera magician, he shot some of Hong Kong's most gorgeous films: A Fishy Story, Swordsman, Saviour of the Soul, The Bride With White Hair, plus four with Chow Yun-fat. Then he went to Hollywood to work with Jean Claude Van Damme and the devil doll Chucky.

- . He has made movies in his native Taipei (Eat Drink Man Woman); in New York City and its bedroom suburbs (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, The Ice Storm); in the U.S. Civil War border-state of Missouri (his current Ride With the Devil); in Cornwall, England (Sense and Sensibility). In each locale he was a kind of foreigner; even Taiwan must have seemed strange when he returned, after 16 years in America, for Eat Drink Man Woman. But Lee has had his fill of intimate family sagas for now. I want to paint on a big canvas in a big country, he says. And, why not, with big stars?

These cosmopolitan artists have convened, in the land of their ancestors, to make some art, some friends and, perhaps, some money. The film is partially financed by Columbia TriStar Asia (a new Hong Kong-based division of Sony), with help from Sony Classics Pictures in the U.S. Thus this $15 million movie is a microcosm of Chinese ambitions in the world market. Filmmakers from the three Chinas are trying to stay true to their heritage while appealing to the West.

And while understanding each other. The set is a Babel of dialects: most of the technicians speak Mandarin, while the Yuen stunt team--20 guys who have been with him forever--bark orders in Cantonese. Yeoh, who does not read Chinese, learns her script line by line in pinyin. Lee's Taiwan-accented Mandarin earns giggles from the local crew. Chow is being prodded to brush up on his pronunciation, but of course he shrugs it off: I say, 'Don't waste your time worrying about my Mandarin. I'll fix it in the looping.'

There are other language barriers. Lee, steeped in Method acting techniques, asks the stars to heighten a scene by using sense memory (recalling a personal event and applying the feeling it summons to the role). But Hong Kong actors are used to selling their lines and moving on. So the gentle director persists until he gets what he wants. Before this film, he says, I never did more than 13 takes. But on some shots here we went into the 30s.

The Crouching Tiger set is a collision of advanced technology and primitive conditions. Computer whizzes will erase the wires holding the stars as they fly through the story, but Chow's flight is being guided by one smallish man pulling a fat rope. The crew makes trans-world cell-phone calls; yet rats scuttle through the courtyard and dining halls, blind to star quality, and the scuzzy toilets lack seats. Two portable toilets, for the leading players, stand in the lobby; their doors are padlocked.

Splendor and squalor. Lightning flashes of improvisation in a shot that takes hours to set up. After 100 years, filmmaking is still so cumbersome, so inefficient, you would think it had been invented by the Bulgarian People's Republic as a method of featherbedding and slow torture. There is bustle and ennui as the great beast of a movie idea lumbers to be born. Making a film is the world's most glamorous drudgery.

And the director is at the center of it all. Or, these days, in a secluded part of the sound stage, huddled with a few aides in front of a monitor. Lee studies the framing of the shot, the actor's attitude; it is as if he's playing a video game with real people inside. He spots a glitch, whispers, NG (no good) and scampers onto the set--I must have logged 600 miles on this shoot, he says wanly. A director needs to be attuned to every nuance on the set; yet, three months into a shoot that will go nonstop till Christmas, Lee is exhausted. Directing is like cramming for a final exam that lasts all year.

And shooting is just part of the job--for Lee, not the crucial one. Shooting a movie is like shopping for groceries, says Lee, a gourmet cook. In the editing room, that's when you cook the meal. Chow doesn't argue with this assessment. Says he: Ang Lee is a great chef.

In this complicated movie recipe, there are a few new ingredients. One subtle spice is provided by Gao Xi'an, a handsome native of Xi'an province (Hi, I'm Xi'an from Xi'an) whom Lee met in Flushing, New York, where Gao teaches martial arts. He has a supporting role and is an exercise coach to the stars. Today he is alone in the studio courtyard, his hands describing tai-chi figures with the power and grace of a Nureyev. The image will not be in the film, but it is nonetheless indelible.

The freshest ingredient is Zhang in the pivotal role of May. This 19-year-old was discovered by Zhang Yimou, who cast her in his latest film Our Way Home. Now she is routinely called the new Gong Li, though she's more delicate, less assured. In her big scene today she must listen to dialogue from her governess, walk toward the camera and give an impassioned speech. At first, as crew members read Cheng's lines, Zhang is tentative, glum. Then Cheng volunteers to read her own lines. Energized by the veteran's generosity and fervor, Zhang now catches fire; she finds meaning in the words and steel resolve beneath them. Maybe a star wasn't born at that moment--but an actress was.

There are many talented people here, trying to make a good movie; the gods should smile on them. But the gods can work in fickle or inscrutable ways. Ask Eddie Kong, Crouching Tiger's producer. We were out in the Gobi Desert, the hottest, driest place on earth, he says. So each morning we lit incense for good luck. Well, we had dreadful luck--it rained sheets, nonstop, ruining our schedule. After a while one of the local people came around and said the gods must be smiling on us. We asked why. 'Because you burned the incense,' he said. 'We burn the incense when we want it to rain.'