For any film to have found a place on so many top 10 lists, it must have something going for it. Crouching Tiger has many things, among them the visionary directing stamp of director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Eat Drink Man Woman) and the powerful acting presence of the luminous Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) and the globally popular Chow Yun Fat (The Replacement Killers).
But this film also has far more going for it than simply great direction and acting. It also has a handful of intriguing stories, a mythical atmosphere, epic scope, eye-catching cinematography, a stunning soundtrack and astoundingly original visual effects. But there's even something else, an additional component that keeps pushing the film over the top in every way. It's that rarest of combinations, a movie that will equally attract and make fans of both men and women. This is because it's not only a wild martial arts adventure film, filled with fast-moving, non-stop sword fights; it's also a film with an unlimited supply of sweeping romanticism. It's a true something-for-everyone kind of affair.
Taking place in ancient China, the tale opens with a small village rejoicing over the return of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), a warrior who has been away meditating. He's come back for two reasons: to visit an old friend, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who, it's immediately obvious, is more than a friend; and to give away his mighty broadsword, the Green Destiny, because he feels that it's time to move on from fighting.
Although the relationship between Li and Shu Lien isn't explained (until much later in the film), a lot is said in just the way they look at each other. But it is made very clear without delay that both of them know the ways of swordplay, first in words and later in actions.
After Li heads off to the Wudan Mountain training grounds to tie up some personal business, and Shu Lien arrives in Beijing to deliver the Green Destiny to a friend, she meets the beautiful and feisty Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who is getting cold feet about her impending arranged marriage. But the story takes on new dimensions when the sword is stolen in a daring nighttime raid by a masked burglar, who is suddenly accosted by Shu Lien.
And it's here that the film leaps over a few notches and enters into an amazing realm of excitement. The extended chase and martial arts fight that's played out literally lifts these characters off the ground, up walls, across roof tops, fluidly and beautifully running and flying in a way no human possibly can. But it's all believable, and it's all a load of fun.
This is just the first of many innovative fights, some done with fists and feet, some with deadly weapons, some between two women, some between a man and a woman, others with all sorts of participants mixing it up at once (in a comic homage to a Western barroom brawl). The trick for the viewer is to immediately accept that these fighters can fly. When that is accomplished -- and it comes very easily -- the film never stops becoming more enjoyable.
But again, there's far more to the proceedings than these fights. There's the revelation of what's gone on between Li and Shu Lien in the past; as well as a terrific flashback story of a different relationship, that of Jen and the desert bandit Lo (Chang Chen), who once had a stormy, erotic romance in which it was hard to tell who dominated the other; finally, there's Li's longtime bitter rivalry with the evil Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), the ruthless woman who poisoned his master, and after whom he's still seeking revenge.
The script, originally written in English by James Schamus, and based on the pre-World War II novel by Wang Du Lu, then translated into Chinese with many revisions, manages to tell all of these stories separately, each with their own importance, and then weave them together into a seamless whole.
But it's the sure hand of Ang Lee who, with the help of choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix), has turned it all into a breathtaking cinematic adventure. The spectacular airborne fights, first staged only at night, then later in broad daylight, will capture the attention and imagination of everyone watching, and will surely make many jaws drop in wonder. But the emotional power of the sometimes wordless, sometimes outright lusty love that seems to be evading all of the major characters, is what gives this excellent film all of its heart.