Flying kung fu warriors, evil witches, reckless Mongol horsemen and cratefuls of exotic hand-to-hand weapons - while being the staples of traditional kung fu movies, they're not what you'd expect to see in an arthouse pic. Yet in the hands of genre-jumping director Ang Lee, the pretty-pretty world of fringe cinema crunches straight into hardcore chop-socky to produce a film that has, quite rightly, been labelled the first "martial arthouse" movie.
The remarkable achievement is that it doesn't compromise either of these seemingly incompatible genres. Take a stopwatch to this and The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger wins by having longer, more varied and arguably better fight scenes. The combination of seamless wire work and the characters' flying abilities (explanation?They just can) produces chases and fights that swoop across courtyards, up walls and even teeter on the swaying tips of bamboo trees.
Amazingly, the fights aren't action breaks, they further the characters, express emotion and are an integral part of the story. So, through combat we can see the youthful arrogance of Jen (newcomer Zhang Ziyi) as she leaps about, contrasting with the effortless dignity of Li (Chow Yun-Fat). The fighting is indistinguishable from the acting because it is the acting.
Thrilling the arthouse audience, meanwhile, is a display of China's most beautiful, farthest flung reaches that are enough to make you weep at the wonder of it all. With an eye for colour, composition and form that marries the costumes and sets to the formality and rigidness of Chinese Qing Dynasty society, there are few films as beautifully crafted as this.
By rights, this should make more money than any Hollywood blockbuster, but the stumbling block is that audiences traditionally hold back from paying to see subtitled movies. In this case, don't let your prejudices stop you - the language is poetic and the acting is so flawless that you understand the emotions even if you can't understand the words spoken.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon defies pigeon-holing by succeeding as a love story, an action movie, a fantasy and a period drama. And even though it's only the start of 2001, the feeling here at Total Film is that we've probably already seen the best acted, best shot and most exciting film of the year.
With more action than all the Lethal Weapons combined and more heart-swelling humanity than The English Patient, Crouching Tiger manages to please all of the people, all of the time. Miss it and you're avoiding cinema at its very best.
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