Cinema: Year Of The Tiger

High art meets high spirits in a rapturously romantic epic that really kicks butt

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From the beginning, the film seemed cursed. "We started shooting in the Gobi Desert," recalls director Ang Lee, dimpled but unsmiling. "That night the crew got lost in the desert until 7 a.m. We finally got going, and after the second shot, a sandstorm came in." Could things get worse? Ask producer Bill Kong. "The Gobi is the hottest, dryest 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.'"

With good or bad luck, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would have provided a stern challenge. Consider these factors: a $15 million action movie that was also to be a poignant, tragic romance; a fight choreographer, Yuen Wo-ping, who had won international acclaim for his work on The Matrix and was bound to tangle with the soft-spoken, hard-to-budge Lee; a top-flight all-Asian cast featuring Chow Yun Fat (Hong Kong), Michelle Yeoh (Malaysia), Zhang Ziyi (Beijing) and Chang Chen (Taiwan). Only one of the stars--Zhang, then a 19-year-old ingenue--spoke anything like the classical mainland Mandarin that Lee demanded.

At least these difficulties were built into the scenario. What no one expected was that Yeoh would injure her knee and need a month's rehab in the U.S., or that the whole ordeal would be so damned exhausting. "We shot around the clock with two teams," says Lee, 46. "I didn't take one break in eight months, not even for half a day. I was miserable--I just didn't have the extra energy to be happy. Near the end, I could hardly breathe. I thought I was about to have a stroke."

As the sage said, dying is easy, filmmaking is hard. But everyone was so serious on Crouching Tiger because Lee, who made his reputation with adult dramas of manners like The Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility, had a child inside screaming to get out. He wanted to pay homage to his lifelong ardor for martial-arts novels and pictures. He had made beautiful films; now he would bend his considerable artistry to make, dammit, a movie. The sad story has a happy ending. All that agony has produced exactly what Lee hoped to create--a blending of Eastern physical dexterity and Western intensity of performance. High art meets high spirits on the trampoline of an elaborate plot. Crouching Tiger is contemplative, and it kicks ass. Or put it this way: it's a powerful film and a terrific movie.

Based on part of a Wang Du Lu novel from the 1930s, the script by James Schamus, Wang Huiling and Tsai Kuojung concerns the theft of a sword, the Green Destiny. This is the holy weapon of Li Mubai (Chow), a legendary warrior looking for peace in his later days. He entrusts the sword to Yu Shulien (Yeoh), a gifted martial artist with whom he shares an unspoken love. Then Jen (Zhang), daughter of a political bigwig, arrives, and everything tips off-balance. The wiser, more cautious adults sense Jen's avidity for rare and dangerous toys like the Green Destiny. They are also suspicious of her governess (Cheng Peipei), who bears a resemblance to the ruthless killer Jade Fox. Then one night the sword disappears. And everyone springs into frantic, purposeful motion.

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