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One from Column A
by Lucius Shepard
April 13, 2001

Before Star Wars there was Hidden Fortress, a film by Akira Kurosawa that provided the source material for George Lucas's epic fanboy treat. Thus it's only fair that an Asian epic of sorts, the best pure entertainment in recent years, cops a few Lucasoid licks on its way to becoming a girl-power version of the trilogy. Perhaps it's sheer coincidence that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon revolves about the story of a beautiful princess Jen (Ziyi Zhang) manipulated by a Darth Vaderesque female, Jade Fox (Pei Pei Chang); in love with Lo, a rascally outlaw (Chen Chang); tutored by Jedi-like soul warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat); and given Yoda love by Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). True, a great many fantasies contain variations on these elements. But there are a number of clues, such as a bar scene with a distinctly Star Wars-ish feel, that lead me to believe this is no coincidence. Similarities aside, however, Dragon stands in relation to Lucas' work as man does to the amoeba. Whereas Star Wars was all teenage whizbang gosharootie, Dragon manages to jam the essence of the original trilogy (minus, thankfully, any reference to club-wielding teddy bears) into slightly less than two hours, and replaces Lucas' juvenile humor with soulfulness and martial artistry taken to the level of ballet. It was director Ang Lee's (The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil) stated intention to create an homage to the B-quality Chinese sword fantasies he watched as a child, films whose cultural niche was similar to that of our 1940s and '50s westerns. This tradition, previously dominated by pictures laden with cheap effects that effected a burlesque of Chinese opera, has undergone a renaissance in recent years with the production of such films as Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero, big budget Hong Kong releases with special effects that rival those of The Matrix and featuring Ekin Chang and Aaron Kwok, a pair of young actors verging on superstar status in the world of Asian cinema. Riders tells the story of the emperor of the "Martial Arts World" (veteran Japanese heavy Sonny Chiba), the greatest swordsman of his time, who kills two great warriors and raises their sons as his own. The sons (Kwok and Chang) have a falling out over the affections of the emperor's daughter, but unite in the end to defeat the evil emperor. The story is a marvel of complexity, tracking—in addition to the main thread—the fates of such characters as an oracular monk who pals around with a god disguised as a monkey, and a villager who cuts off his sword arm so it can replace the missing arm of one of the heroes. The magical duels, of which there are many, put to shame anything along these lines done to date by Hollywood—of special note is the final conflict, which takes place in the "Sword Grave," a plot of malignant earth in which the emperor plants the living swords of his numerous victims.

Hero marks a stylistic evolution of the genre, utilizing a non-linear narrative that cuts back and forth between China and America during the mid- and late 19th Century. The storyline of the movie is so complex, it would take a separate review to do it justice; but put succinctly, it is a generational saga involving father-and-son warriors and the resolution in America of enmities that began years before in China, treating of the exploitation of Chinese immigrants both by Americans and by their own people. The set pieces include an attack by magical shadows on the streets of Manhattan, a performance of traditional Chinese dance that masks the rescue of oppressed railroad workers, and a tremendous duel with magic and swords that takes place atop the Statue of Liberty. Until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon happened along, this film established the high-water mark for the Chinese version of high fantasy.

Both the aforementioned films are plotted hyperkinetically, with lots of twists and turns and subplots, and characters who often are not what they originally appear to be. Dragon, relatively speaking, eschews complexity of this sort and uses two love stories to ground the action of the movie. One of these threads involves the unconsummated love between Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien, both of whom have rejected their personal desires in order to follow the path of duty and honor. The second thread treats of the volatile relationship between the bratty, rebellious Princess Jen and the outlaw Lo. This simplicity of story, so at variance with the convoluted structures of traditional sword flicks, may be the factor that has caused many Asians to dismiss the film as being aimed at a white audience. (Of course, if one accepts this assumption as true, it would logically follow that George Lucas' target audience for Star Wars was the Far East.) Another element that separates Dragon from its cousins is its loving attention to setting —not since Lawrence of Arabia have the story and landscape of a film heavy on action been so thoroughly intertwined (indeed, during Dragon's wonderful desert sequences, Oscar-winning cinematographer Peter Pau incorporates a number of visual quotes from David Lean's masterpiece); however, in Dragon there is a great variety of landscape, and setting is used to reflect the characters' moods rather than, as is the case in Lawrence, to frame them. Then, too, there is the character of Princess Jen—she seems more contemporary riot girrl than Ching Dynasty princess, willing to rebel against her life of privilege in order to seek personal freedom. But what ultimately elevates Dragon to the status of a masterpiece of its genre are the stunning fight sequences, most achieved not through wire work, as is customary in Hong Kong and in American films like The Matrix, but with the deft usage of CGI graphics. The initial sequence in which Shu Lien chases the thief who has stolen the magical Jade Sword over the rooftops is likely go down as one the signature moments in the history of the cinema. It is the theft of the Jade Sword by a masked thief that ignites the plot, uniting Li Mu Bai—whose sword it is—and Shu Lien in a hunt for the culprit, who turns out to be Princess Jen. The princess is being manipulated by the wizardly Jade Fox, who craves the sword for herself and is an old enemy of Li Mu Bai, having killed his teacher in the martial arts. Shu Lien strives to lead Jen onto the path of virtue, but following a duel between the two and a flashback sequence that reprises the inception of the love affair between the princess and the outlaw, Jen runs away. The pursuit of the princess and Jade Fox's attempts to shape events so as bring down her old enemy, Li Mu Bai, comprise the remainder of the plot, but at the heart of the movie is the somber resolution of the relationship between Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai, and its effect on Jen, who, when she finally comes to sober maturity by film's end, is then faced with a choice between love and a life of royal duty. In most sword flicks, the acting is generally (to be kind) broad, but the actors in Dragon, manage to raise the bar. Chow Yun Fat's screen presence is, as always, possessed of enormous gravitas and Michelle Yeoh, the real star of the film, turns in an astonishingly subtle performance as Li Mu Bai's forlorn love and Jen's mentor. That Julia Roberts, an actress whose talents are best suited to commercials touting aids for vaginal dryness, should win an Oscar while Yeoh is left off the short list is a monumental idiocy of which only the Academy is capable. The mixture of rage, grief (over the death of Li Mu Bai), and compassion that Yeoh wordlessly conveys in her brief confrontation with Jen toward the end of the movie is stunning. I have read a few critiques that describe her acting in Dragon as flat, but that, simply put, is ridiculous. The large part of her emotionality is externalized, announced by her actions, her gestures, and that is quite a difficult trick to pull off. For my mind, Yeoh's take on Shu Lien is the most completely realized action performance I've seen for a couple of decades.

Looking back over the list of Hollywood's entries in the field of high fantasy films, a list that inspires shuddery flashbacks to such experiences such as Ladyhawke, Willow, Dragonheart, Conan The Barbarian, Legend, The Sword and the Sorcerer, and Dungeons and Dragons (wherein the formerly redoubtable Jeremy Irons takes what may wind up being an irredeemable step into cinematic irrelevance), it's hard to come up with even one movie that belongs in the same league with those covered by this review, not to mention others that spring to mind: Heroic Trio (also featuring Michelle Yeoh); Wang Kar Wai's existentialist revision of the genre, Ashes of Time; Tsui Hark's Chinese Ghost Story; and Zu, Warriors of Moon Mountain, to name but a few. Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves is a borderline qualifier. And if we extend the parameters of the genre a bit so as to include films like Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, then we might add a few contenders; but otherwise the view is bleak. Perhaps the release of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings will overcome this lack, but it is nonetheless curious that, given their technical and acting resources, and the wealth of source material available, the studios have failed the genre to such a resounding degree. It may be that American filmmakers have no great feel for a tradition that does not mirror their own country's traditions. This said, one wonders why no one has yet tried to make a film from Steven King's Dark Tower series (a chronicle that first saw light in F&SF), which retells The Song of Roland from the standpoint of a mythical gunslinger, a purely American ikon.

It's inevitable that Dragon, what with its financial success, will spawn imitations . . . and then again, maybe not. If the strikes threatened by the Writers and Screen Actors Guilds go forward, the studios will be unable to obey their cretinous instincts for quite some time, and instead of having to watch shabby imitations, we will be afflicted with shelf-sitting films that the tasteless arbiters of Hollywood culture decided were not good enough to distribute. Given the average quality of product in release, this prospect borders on the obscene. Some of these films (most horribly and imminently notable, the racing movie Driven starring Sly Stallone) are already coming off the shelves, and God only knows what gems of high fantasy have been gathering dust in studio archives. Could we be in store for another giddy romp with that cheesy crescent-moon-headed devil guy in Legend 2? Will Daughter of Ladyhawke lay an enormous egg (I like Drew Barrymore for the part—she could pass for Rutger Hauer's outside child)? Might Schwarzenegger return as Conan the Right Wing Intellectual? Will Kull kum again? Far better to stay at home and rewatch Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or any one of a number of other good Asian fantasy flicks than to risk the soul-death brought on by viewing one too many rotten displays of celluloid witch-mages, overgrown iguanas, and urping trolls who resemble Ernest Borgnine emerging from a mud bath. But whether or not the strikes occur, until some consciousness-changing event influences the tendencies of American high fantasy films, the marquee of any theater showing such woeful efforts as we have become accustomed to should not bother listing the title of the movie, but spell out instead the clich� that has been stated explicitly or implicitly in so many less than magnificent literary fantasies: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.