Ang Lee has called his new film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, "a kind of dream of China," and that's exactly what it feels like. Set in the early nineteenth century, and starring the great Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, it's a martial-arts fantasia that combines the pop impulse of Hong Kong fighting films with the delicacy and classicism of an earlier, more spiritual style of storytelling. The effect is paradoxical: a muted extravaganza.
The Taiwanese-born Lee is best known as the director of such films as The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, and perhaps too much can be made of the parallels between those films and this one; conflicts between loyalty and desire are, after all, ever present in drama. But Lee's approach to the rigors of his material -- grace and heroism as expressed in the traditional wuxia mythology of knightly chivalry dating from the ninth century -- is supremely heartfelt. (The script, derived from a pre-World War II Chinese novel, is by Wang Hui Ling, Tsai Kuo Jung, and Lee's regular writing-producing collaborator, James Schamus.) Lee emphasizes not only the startling, high-flying mechanics of swordplay and martial artistry but also warfare's deeply human dimension, in which lives are truly lost. The battles between the main antagonists, including three women warriors, are like conversations carried out almost entirely in movement. The athleticism is as eloquent as any speech; the fighters' gestures, nuanced and distinctive, are human calligraphy. The spiritual possibilities of these people are most profoundly realized when they're battling. Sitting or standing apart from one another in normal workaday situations, they relate with a formalized repressiveness, but in combat their full fury comes through. Some of the most vehement clashes are between people who love each other, or want to. Their features, their souls, seem rent in these moments, and the rending has a tragic weight.
Lee is working here with Hong Kong action choreographer (and sometime director) Yuen Wo-Ping, who was responsible for the fight wizardry in The Matrix and in many of the best Jackie Chan and Jet Li films. Yuen's incomparable acrobatic forays fused with Lee's graceful sensibility result in a series of yin-yang battles that are probably the best ever seen in the martial-arts genre. What's beautiful about them is not just their roiling poetry but also the lyricism of the emotion behind them. The great silent comics, especially Buster Keaton, had this gift for lyricized athleticism; Keaton put his soul into his body movements, which is why his flips and clambers and pratfalls are at once hilarious and intensely, mysteriously moving. This mysteriousness of motion in which the soul is laid bare is what Lee and Yuen and their actors achieve in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film's protagonists are both forceful archetypes and highly particularized personalities. They may choose to sink into the Tao of selflessness, yet they remain almost shockingly vivid.
Chow Yun Fat plays Li Mu Bai, a legendary warrior who wishes to renounce his warring ways along with his 400-year-old sword, Green Destiny. "Too many men have died at its edge," he says, and he passes it along for safekeeping to his longtime ally and friend Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), who is en route to Beijing. Li and Shu Lien have a deep, unspoken ardor for each other, but complications from the past have kept them apart. In Beijing, the sword is stolen as another key character is introduced, Jen (the marvelous newcomer Zhang Ziyi), a politician's daughter whose seeming primness doesn't jibe with the feral gleam in her eye. The film's first major confrontation is a night fight between Shu Lien and a masked intruder, and even though we (and Shu Lien) can guess who that intruder might be, it doesn't diminish the sheer leaping grandeur of the scene, with both women soaring in the darkness. If anything, the grandeur for us is increased, since we feel we have been brought intimately into a secret. The hushed, spectral quality of this combat is balletic in the best sense; it's like a reverie of weightlessness. (The wire work that makes such leaping possible is rendered invisible.) You watch the swirling battles in this film, their freestyle precision, with the same rapture as you would watch Astaire and Rogers, or Donald O'Connor bouncing off the walls in Singin' in the Rain. Throughout the movie, Lee mounts increasingly elaborate set pieces for our delectation, and because the emotional stakes are higher each time, the sequences deepen as they accumulate.
The story winds through many levels. Li returns to rescue his sword and avenge the long-ago murder of his master, killed by the notorious female bandit Jade Fox (the veteran Hong Kong star Cheng Pei Pei). He tries to enlist the unruly Jen, in whom he recognizes a kindred spirit, as his disciple. The fight between them, as they cling to the tops of swaying bamboo in a dark forest, is one of the most magical passages in the history of movies. A martial-arts film that is also, in the deepest sense, a romance, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has the potential to harmonize audiences usually thought to be poles apart: the action crowd and the art-house crowd. Its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, is giving it a cautious, initially small-scale release. Yet even with its subtitles -- the language spoken is Mandarin -- the film is, I would think, extraordinarily accessible. It's rare to find a film that satisfies our craving for pop while giving us the transcendence of poetry. But isn't this what the promise of popular art in the movies has always been about? Ang Lee may have begun this project with the idea of re-creating the warrior tales of his boyhood, but, like his soaring romancers here, he's taken a great leap into the beyond.
In brief: Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night is being brought back after 36 years in a newly restored print with a digitally enhanced soundtrack, and it's better than ever. Not only has this film not dated, it may even look fresher than it did in 1964; the zigzag cutting and camera moves, the jaunty ironies and pop-celebrity playfulness, are all standard issue now on MTV and its offspring. And yet what struck me seeing it again is what a motley set of traditions this newfangled comedy drew on; not just The Goon Show but also the British music hall and the Marx Brothers and the Keystone Kops. I suppose it's possible to look at A Hard Day's Night, with its fizzy innocence and its impossibly young-looking Beatles, and wax nostalgic, but really, this film is far too much fun for nostalgia.