Keeping Cool

Virtually through the roof: Michelle Yeoh in <i>Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon</i>

Virtually through the roof: Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

In an enchanting scene near the end of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a composed older warrior and a fiery young fighter leap lightly between green tree branches, dancing their opposition with elegant magic. I watched this treetop waltz with a mixture of wonder and disappointment--the latter because I could see how excellent the film might have been in other hands. If it had been directed by Tsui Hark, for instance.

Perhaps, though, the surprise of this scene has everything to do with the flatness of what precedes it. Lee's subtitled film is all about the art of balancing, as in so much of his previous work. Instead of sense and sensibility, or individuality and family (The Ice Storm), here he sets passion against the Buddhist idea of nonattachment: living in the world, or living out of it. The supremely controlled martial-arts expert Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) has decided to hang up his sword, "The Green Destiny." He gives it to his longtime compatriot Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to pass along to a government leader. Li and Shu Lien love each other, though neither has expressed it because of an old and obscure matter of honor. Soon after Shu Lien delivers the sword, it is stolen--by, it turns out, an upper-class adolescent girl who has taught herself the highest martial-arts techniques.

The girl, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), is as wild at heart as Li and Shu Lien are reserved and dutiful. Unfortunately, Lee doesn't portray either stance with much imagination--or verve. Yeoh does a terrific job looking sad and weary and efficient, but I wished she had been allowed a greater range. As usual, Chow Yun-Fat strides the sets with fabulous style, but he seems oddly lost until the treetop scene. At one point, after Li and Shu Lien awkwardly try to discuss their emotions, he looks off to the side: I think he's meant to appear meditative or restrained, but the effect more closely resembles boredom.

Meanwhile, Lee's attempt at celebrating desire reads as silly as a Harlequin romance. In a ridiculously lengthy flashback, we see Jen traveling in a long caravan across a desolate mountain plain. Bandits attack, and they steal her favorite comb. Being the properly raised girl she is, she hijacks a pony and goes after the bandit leader, a reckless but ultimately kind (of course) honey nicknamed Dark Cloud. Fighting turns to loving, etc. They must part, but they will meet again, for "a faithful heart makes wishes come true." In The Ice Storm, Lee transformed a funny, lively book into a chilly sermon about the terrible liberations of the Seventies. Emma Thompson's sobbing breakdown in Sense and Sensibility notwithstanding, the director has often seemed uncomfortable with the lower passions. The rote clinches here do not convince otherwise.

Still the grapplings between Shu Lien and Jen, which were choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping (Drunken Master, The Matrix) are taut, breathless, visceral--everything that most of the rest of the movie is not. In general, Crouching Tiger feels like long stretches of tedious plains broken up by sudden jagged mountains. It's a balance of sorts--tired stasis and awesome fights--but it sells short the notion of spiritual centeredness that Li and Shu Lien are supposed to embody. And it's not that fun to watch.

So I say. But the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle named Crouching Tiger its movie of the year. And the reviews and the buzz have been all Lee could ask for. What gives? No doubt it's a matter of perspective. I read one daily-newspaper review that crowed: "This is the movie Hong Kong film fans have been waiting for! It's Hong Kong's first adult action film!" Putting aside the fact that HK fans are a sundry bunch who might not all have been panting for greater maturity (more teenage-mall-zombie movies!), this type of reaction makes obvious the critical ignorance of Crouching Tiger's ancestry. Leading female roles are common in wuxia pian, or Chinese "knight" swordplay stories. Wong Kar-Wai's formally extravagant Ashes of Time and Tsui Hark's gender bait-and-switching Swordsman II make Lee's "adultness" look cramped and conservative. Jet Li, in Tai Chi Master, does Buddhist nonattachment with a passion.

Obviously, I've seen and loved those films. Perhaps you have not. You may find Crouching Tiger a delightful ride, as others have. Grouchy me, I keep worrying about what is lost when the American mainstream (which, Taiwan-born or not, Lee now represents) adopts some quirky tradition and sells it as "genuine." I flinch at the "magical" roof-running that rivals Drew Barrymore's harnessed levitations for hapless buoyancy. I miss the effortlessness that marks Ching Tsiu-Tung's flying action scenes. I seek in vain to be frightened, or at least disturbed. (I was most moved when Chow Yun-Fat's character fell ill--and that's how I thought of him: "Oh, Chow!") There's some kind of crazily flamboyant freedom to the best HK movies, which Lee only approaches in the treetop scene, and in the film's last delirious shot.

It's hard for me to see past those quibbles. But Lee, of course, is not necessarily trying to make a Hong Kong sword and sorcery film. He's making a film using Hong Kong sword and sorcery tropes. Lee's films are about the conflict between desire and duty, passion and responsibility, wildness and control, and how those conflicts resolve. Most often they resolve in a manner that sells short passion and freedom. Crouching Tiger ends more ambiguously, so perhaps he has learned something from the genre. My question is: Why keep setting up this dualism? Is there something inherently dramatic in the opposition of desire and duty? As always, watching a Lee film, I chafe against his parameters. What if my desire were my duty, and my duty were my desire? What if a film started with that possibility, rather than (maybe) ending with it?