Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brings two new concepts to martial arts movies - real acting and an actual plot. But then, it's not really an martial art's movie, it's more of a fantasy flick. Well, no, not really, it's a love story. Wait, forget that, it's a nature film, full of breathtaking scenery. On second thought, it's a special effects masterpiece, with effects so subtle and well done you don't notice them as effects. On second thought. . .
Li Mu Bai, (played by Chow Yun-fat) is a martial arts warrior who decides to leave the warrior's life behind. His only regret is that he has failed to avenge the death of his master, who was murdered by Jade Fox. He decides to give away his ancient and irreplaceable sword, and enlists Shu (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver it. Shu befriends Jen, a nobleman's daughter who is about to be married to someone she doesn't love. (About half way through the movie we're treated to a very long flashback that reveals the identity of her true love.) Jen wants to live her life as warrior, not a nobleman's wife, and soon reveals her hidden fighting talents. The sword is stolen shortly after it is delivered, setting the scene for some innovative and impressive fighting scenes.
Like most good martial arts films, the fighting scenes are extremely fast, meticulously choreographed and stunningly filmed. But they are not just battles, but rather a precise, violent ballet. Most of the fights are both fierce and delicate at the same time, like a painting of a tiger on porcelain. The fighters treat gravity as a minor nuisance, scurrying up walls like spiders on speed and flying gracefully over the city by gently pushing off rooftops. The effect is occasionally silly, but usually works. In one scene Li and his opponent battle in the treetops, standing on branches far too slender to support them, using the gentle bounce of the branches as a weapon.
Foreign films that receive nearly unanimous praise from critics are often arty stuff that only appeals to people who watch movies for a living. This is an exception to the rule, and an exceptional film. The first twenty minutes are a bit slow, but it's worth the wait. It's got a bit of everything - intense, expressive fighting, love stories, carefully understated acting, subtle humor, and beautiful scenery. I seldom go to first run films, because I consider $8.25 tickets a rip off, but I left the theater not only feeling that I got my money's worth, but disappointed that it was the last showing of the night, as I was tempted to buy another ticket to see it again.