The reason for all the fuss is that "Crouching Tiger" blends different genres with remarkable success. Part love story, part historical and mythological drama, part action and part fantasy, it is such an imaginative melange with such spectacular effects that it makes "The Matrix" look rote by comparison. It combines traditional martial arts (always appealing to boys) with a devastatingly effective new slant: the all-female combat scene, making this film's catfights a wild card selling point to young women. If that weren't enough, it also features the buff and beautiful Michelle Yeoh--an international star after "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "Supercop"--and Chow Yun-fat, who recently toplined "Anna and the King." And in director Ang Lee's name, Sony Classics has potential credibility for more mature demographics; this is the man who brought you "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm." What it also has, finally, is an engaging storyline co-written by longtime Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus.
The tale itself takes place in the early 19th century and concerns martial arts vet Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) who decides to leave combat and his beloved sword, the Green Destiny, and asks his longtime friend Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) to take it to a nobleman in Beijing on his behalf. There Shu Lien meets a seemingly innocent nobleman's daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who has been pressed into an arranged marriage but longs for the life of an adventurer, like Shu Lien. While that first 20 minutes is slow, even tediously dull, the payoff is huge.
When Green Destiny is stolen, Shu Lien pursues the masked thief (presumably Jen). That chase prompts a thrilling fight scene, the first of many, that blends the actors' physical gifts and stunts with remarkable digital effects. At times the women actually appear to fly, but the sophisticated CGI technology has wiped clean any trace of a wire.
The rest of the tale focuses on the status of the Green Destiny, Mu Bai's quest to avenge the death of his late master, an unspoken but powerful love between Mu Bai and Lu Shien, and a clandestine romance between Jen and a rag-tag mountain warrior (Chang Chen). There are action sequences aplenty, some of them refreshingly humorous, and enough melodrama to satisfy anyone hungry for emotion. The camera work, acting and production design are all stellar, and there's even an additional bonus in the form of Yo-Yo Ma's cello solos. Starring Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Zi Yi. Directed by Ang Lee. Written by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung. Produced by Bill Kong, Hsu Li Kong and Ang Lee. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Action-drama. Chinese-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 120 mi