n Ang Lee's soulful action film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Chow Yun Fat strides onto the screen proud, erect and easy; he's Cary Grant with a ponytail. His witty reserve is used beautifully here, and the picture is more fun than it has a right to be.
Any collaboration featuring Mr. Lee, Mr. Chow, Michelle Yeoh, Yo-Yo Ma and the wizard martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping is bound to spike expectations through the roof as well as start more than a few hands scratching heads in confusion. What are these guys doing working together? They're applying their specialties to a Hong Kong action movie that rings with confidence, and is being shown tonight as the closing film of the New York Film Festival.
Mr. Lee takes the action form, which often attacks the screen with energy and movement, and creates a placid surface that offers a new perspective and a spirituality not normally found in these pictures. In terms of action nothing much takes place for the first 10 minutes. That's so he can set up the incredibly complicated plot, which has as much romance, intrigue, free-wheeling action and rousing silliness as any five Hong Kong throw-down fests. This is no small feat, given the dizzying amount of exposition in these movies. Outrageous plot pile- ons certainly take place in "Tiger" a practice as ritualistic as having a martial arts master and student square off against each other, also a part of the picture. Fans of the genre will giggle with delight over the canny way Mr. Lee handles the intersections, and audiences new to these films will shudder with excitement. Mr. Lee puts things together artfully and stages this movie like a comedy of manners; it could be "Sense and Sensibility" with a body count.
The script, by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Long, incorporates the rusty machinery that's a part of almost every culture's folklore. Li Mu Bai (Mr. Chow), legendary martial artist, is tracking the murderer of his master. Poised, fit and self-assured, he can handle anything except his feelings for the lithe, pantherish Yu Shu Lien (Ms. Yeoh, who gives one of the most adult and deeply felt performances ever seen in such a movie). They talk about the intrigues with the intensity others append to matters of the heart. Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the tremulous and spoiled daughter of the governor of the province, is fascinated by Shu Lien's glamorous life: that a woman can have so many adventures and such freedom is marvelous to her. The refined Jen is to be married off into respectability. By night, though, she's a masked and cunning thief and fighter, out to steal the Green Destiny, an invincible blade once wielded by Li.
A mouthful of plot, and that doesn't even take into account the battles with the spurned female warrior Jade Fox. "Tiger" uses the familiar twists of the willful young heroine and combines them with the tradition of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Zorro," only this time the foppish young noble is a fiery young woman determined to taste a life denied her. And because she ends up being the ruination of others, with the added complication of the love that Li and Shu Lien dare not pursue, it's as if Mr. Lee and his team were out to fold parts of "The Bostonians" into this mix.
It's a heady and delirious brew, too. The action is dexterously produced, thanks to the martial choreography of Mr. Yuen, best known to American audiences for the high- flying fights of "The Matrix." The action in "The Matrix" was put together with a process called Bullettime, and here it should be termed Ballettime, as the performers soar gracefully over rooftops and up the sides of buildings as softly as leaves dancing in the air on an autumn day. Mr. Lee has found a way to make even the action feel poetic and spiritual, while sparked by a high adrenaline content. The first fight scene, which brings all the principals together, will make you want to applaud. And each action sequence builds on what has come before, increasing the stakes with a dignified hilarity.
At times "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is like a compendium of every line from a Hong Kong action film ever made, and the clichιs include someone intoning, "It only looks so pure because blood washes so easily from its blade" about the Green Destiny.
Mr. Lee brightens the stockpiling by giving the picture a knockabout, screwball comedy bounce. With pairs of lovers expressing their affection through nose-to-nose physicality, it could be "Hit Me, Kate!" Because the women are treated as generously as the men and are more important to the narrative "Tiger" is just the film for an audience transfixed by the weekly girl- power cool and soap-opera bloodshed of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." Ms. Zhang is just as commanding a presence as Sarah Michelle Gellar, and even now Internet sites devoted to her talents are probably being created: the typing heard 'round the world. The picture frees the genre from being part of a man's, man's, man's world.
The formality is just part of the texture, which Mr. Lee uses for purposes other than comedy: he also exploits the calm for its ominous purposes, to build suspense. (The ringing sound that emanates from the admiring strokes given the Green Destiny emphasizes the toll of the violence.) And Mr. Ma's gorgeous sometimes almost weeping cello solos speak to the tragic elements. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tigers" glides through the trees like its characters; it's an epic that breaks the laws of gravity.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
Directed by Ang Lee; written (in Mandarin, with English subtitles) by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung, based on the novel by Wang Du Lu; director of photography, Peter Pau; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Tan Dun; action choreographer, Yuen Wo-Ping; production designer, Tim Yip; produced by Bill Kong, Hsu Li Kong and Mr. Lee; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 120 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown tonight at 9 P.M. at Avery Fisher Hall as the closing-night film of the 38th New York Film Festival.
WITH: Chang Chen (Lo), Chow Yun Fat (Li Mu Bai), Cheng Pei-Pei (Jade Fox), Lung Sihung (Sir Te), Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu Lien) and Zhang Ziyi (Jen Yu).