Swords, Sense And Sensibility

At once elegant and sublimely silly, contemplative and gung-ho, balletic and bubble-gum, a rousing action film and an epic love story, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is one bursting-at-the-seams holiday gift, beautifully wrapped by the ever-surprising Ang Lee.

Lee, sly fox that he is, starts slow. Like a poker player artfully hiding the full house in his hand, he gives us 10 minutes of stately, nearly immobile exposition. Then, in a nocturnal showdown of martial-arts finesse, all heavenly hell breaks loose. Two female warriors circle each other warily; then, with the gravity- defying logic of a dream, they leap into the air and literally fly to the top of a building. At the breathless end of this lyrically choreographed battle, audiences around the world have been known to burst into applause. And there is more, and even better, yet to come.

For many American viewers, "Hidden Dragon" may be the first Chinese-language film they've ever seen. And they will no doubt feel that (comparisons to "The Matrix's" fight scenes aside) they have never seen anything like it before. But in fact Lee's film comes out of a time-tested tradition. It's an artful pastiche of many Hong Kong movies before it, from King Hu's 1971 historical martial-arts epic "A Touch of Zen" to the wild, gender-bending acrobatics of the Tsui Hark production "Swordsman II" (1991), next to which this looks positively sedate.

"Crouching Tiger" doesn't so much break new ground as reconfigure the genre with the pomp and ceremony of Western production values and the psychological nuance that only the director of "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm" can add to the brew. Lee grounds the high-kicking mayhem in poetic gravity, which gives it a flavor all its own, as plangent and lovely as the cello strains of Tan Dun's memorable score.

There are two delectably different love stories inside this tale of revenge, honor and swordsmanship. Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, two of Hong Kong's greatest stars, play the seasoned veteran warriors whose code of honor has prevented them from expressing the love they have felt for each other for most of their lives. Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen are the younger, more dangerous and impetuous lovers--she's a demure aristocrat by day, a masked warrior by night out to steal Chow's ancient sword, while Chang plays the desert bandit who steals her heart.

The plot is far too byzantine to untangle here. But the well-crafted screenplay (by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung) unfolds the twisted tale elegantly, maintaining a delicate balance between stillness and freneticism, between fairy-tale deeds and down-to-earth emotions. Lee's movie ends, hauntingly, in free fall: an apt image for an entertainment that has the power to sweep us magically off our feet.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonSony
Opens Dec. 8