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The ultimate expression of Amerindie filmmaking’s devotion to Hong Kong cinema, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an homage so earnest that it’s actually in Chinese. Directed by Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee, whose biggest successes came with parlor dramedies such as Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Sensibility, the movie is an epic action romance that arrives on a wave of raves from mainstream-movie pundits. Anyone who’s seen even a couple of the better Tsui Hark films, however, is unlikely to be blown away.
Like its HK models, Crouching Tiger has plenty of plot. Pensive swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) has dedicated himself to finding Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), the thief who killed his master. While at a meditation center, he has an epiphany of “unbearable sorrow” and decides to give up his legendary blade, Green Destiny. If he truly abandons his warrior’s quest, he may be able to consummate his long-submerged love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who’s also a martial-arts whiz. But then Li encounters both Jade Fox and a new protégée, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is soon revealed to be the daughter of a local lord. Jen has been bred for a stolid arranged marriage, but she craves both adventure and Lo (Chang Chen), the desert bandit who once raided her caravan and then fell in love with her. This schema allows for most of the principals to battle each other in gravity-defying scenes meant to challenge such delirious Hark showcases as Peking Opera Blues and the six films of his Once Upon a Time in China series. In flashback, meanwhile, Lo rides the rocky wastelands of western China like a character in another moviepossibly an early one by mainland Chinese virtuoso Zhang (Raise the Red Lantern) Yimou.
Adapted from Wang Du Lu’s novel by scripters Wang Hui Ling, Tsai Kuo Jung, and longtime Lee producer James Schamus, the story contrasts two repressed romances: Li and Yu are separated by duty, and Jen and Lo are divided by family and tradition. The frustrated-love angle explains why Schamus has been describing the film as “Sense and Sensibility with sword fights.” But if Lee’s idea of Jane Austen was sitcommy, it at least had spirit and wit. Crouching Tiger loses its zest whenever it cuts to a scene that wasn’t choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the action maestro best known in the West for his work on The Matrix.
The film has three knockout sequences: First Yu and Jen scamper and even fly across the rooftops of Beijing (the actors dangled on wires that were later removed digitally); then Jen casually defeats a whole teahouse full of adversaries, initially without even putting down her cup; finally, Jen and Li fight while high in the treetops of a bamboo forest, the plants’ trunks bending with each parry. None of these scenes are unprecedented in HK actioners. I’ve seen a half-dozen teahouse showdowns, and the rooftop chase echoes a livelier one in Peking Opera Blues, the treetop battle Once Upon a Time in China’s clash on multistory (and ever-moving) ladders.
Crouching Tiger’s boosters claim that it presents a new paradigm of HK-style action. That’s true only, however, in the sense that Lee’s style is curiously becalmed. His use of long shots and his relatively infrequent cutting actually stifle the thrills that Yuen worked so hard to stage. The director emphasizes upscale grandeurcomplete with a score by legit composer Tan Dun that includes Kodo-like drumming and Yo-Yo Ma cello solosover the playful flair and sheer velocity of the best movies by Hark, John Woo, and Wong Kar-Wai (whose Ashes of Time is the HK action film to beat for sheer hallucinatory style). In fact, the brainless but likable Charlie’s Angelswith fight scenes choreographed by Yuen’s brother Chueng-Yanis truer to the spirit of the HK slash-and-kick flick.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Crouching Tiger with the breakneck films of Hark and his peers; Lee clearly wants to fashion a hybrid of action and contemplative modes. Still, it does seem that many of the film’s cheerleaders owe their enthusiasm to limited knowledge of both its genre and its region. The New Yorker marveled that “if we are to believe Lee’s wondrous panoramic shot, [Beijing] is laid out on a grid system, like a clay-colored New York.” (Well, it is, as the least wondrous of maps will reveal.) The New York Times opined that Lee’s “picture frees the genre from being part of a man’s, man’s, man’s world.” (Actually, female protagonists have been common in HK action movies since the early ’80s, and such landmark films as The Heroic Trio andagainPeking Opera Blues feature more swashbuckling women than does Crouching Tiger.)
Although it was made relatively cheaply and may do well in Asia, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a curious proposition for an American movie. Foreign-language hits are becoming rarer and rarer in the United States, and the film’s producers certainly can’t expect an arty Chinese-language action movie to attract as many viewers as a second-rate dubbed and remodeled Jackie Chan picture. Perhaps, though, HK cinema devotees should simply join in the critical hosannas and hope that Lee’s movie clicks with the audiences for either The Matrix or Raise the Red Lanternor perhaps both. That just might catapult some of the most exciting films of the past 15 years from the repertory circuit to a megaplex near you.
Even though he’s abandoned gritty Chicago for bucolic Vermont, David Mamet still loves stings, hustles, and tough-talking subculturites. And he uses all of these elements in a comedy about his new gangland, Hollywood. The writer-director’s State and Main starts as a frantically funny account of the film crew as occupying army: Director Walt Price (William H. Macy) and company arrive in tiny Waterford, Vt., having hurriedly left a similar town in New Hampshire under circumstances no one will discuss out loud. Price needs a new location for a movie called The Old Mill, and he needs it cheap and fast. What happens next pays tribute to such Preston Sturges films as Sullivan’s Travelsalso the partial inspiration for the new Coen brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?but ultimately finds its way to Mametland.
The complications come as fast as Mamet’s clipped dialogue. Mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning, playing a character named in homage to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) and his wife, Sherry (Patti LuPone), welcome the crew, and the townspeople are as accommodating as they can be. Most of the filmmakers’ problems, in fact, are self-generated. Star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) has a thing for underage girls and is captivated by teenage diner waitress Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles) which leads to the movie’s central predicament. (This being a Mamet film, Carla is depicted as anything but innocent.) And co-star Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) has had a revelation and will not do nude scenes anymore, even though her contract requires one.
Ruthless producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) flies in from Hollywood to handle these problems with mobsterlike panache, but the major burden seems to fall onwho else?the hapless writer. Joe White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a first-time screenwriter who can’t take the pressure of crisis-driven rewrites; he turns for support to new friend Ann Black (played with customary artificiality by Rebecca Pidgeon, the director’s wife), the local bookstore owner and community-theater director, who happens to admire White’s play Anguish. When White and Black begin to fall in love, it further strains relations between the town and the movie crew; Black’s spurned fiancé, Doug MacKenzie (Clark Gregg), is a fledgling local politician who decides to take out his resentment on the production. Around this time, the jokes become strained: All the locals start reading Variety, and the producer demands product placement for a computer company, even though the film is set in 1895.
A movie that starts out fresh and fun soon shifts to Mamet’s customary mix of smarmy and sententious; the turning point may well be when Black defines what “fun” really is. It’s certainly not another visit to Mamet’s house of games, as is a scene that provides the film’s incongruous and unconvincing denouement. Perhaps the writer’s point is that all human activity is a con game, but State and Main’s disappointing latter half seems less a philosophical exercise than an acknowledgment that Mamet just can’t break out of the old neighborhood. CP