From the moment 20 minutes into "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," when two fighting women begin bounding up high walls, using the ground and rooftops as if they were trampolines and treating gravity like a minor annoyance, it's clear that Ang Lee's elaborate and buoyant new production aims to be "The Matrix" of traditional martial arts films.

From the moment 20 minutes into “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” when two fighting women begin bounding up high walls, using the ground and rooftops as if they were trampolines and treating gravity like a minor annoyance, it’s clear that Ang Lee’s elaborate and buoyant new production aims to be “The Matrix” of traditional martial arts films. In this, it is wonderfully and sometimes thrillingly successful, as the filmmakers apply intelligence and humor to a cartoonishly melodramatic story of intrigue and revenge and top it off with a series of stupendous combat sequences. Enterprising hybrid looks to be a big winner internationally, but poses a fascinating marketing challenge in the U.S. Theoretically limited to specialized theaters by its subtitles, pic is set for limited Christmas release by Sony Pictures Classics. But the language issue aside, there is no reason that a significant part of the cool-seeking mainstream audience that flocked to “The Matrix” wouldn’t groove on this one as well, given a knockout trailer, familiarity of the artistic talent involved, strong critical support and the totally accessible action elements. In other words, pic deserves the most muscular possible, Miramax-style attempt to break it out of the foreign-language ghetto and into the multiplex world.

Using a pre-World War II novel as his source material but inspired by the martial arts movies of his youth, Taiwanese helmer Lee here returns to Asia after making three English-language pictures over the last five years.

Although knowledge of prior martial arts epics (as opposed to strictly kung-fu actioners) will enrich the experience for viewers familiar with some of the conventions (and at the same time may turn off ultra-specialists who will feel that pic merely reps fancy new packaging for time-tested goods), nothing about the narrative or character lineup presents a barrier for uninitiated audiences to follow or enjoy the experience.

It’s pulp fiction presented in a grand, knowingly humorous style distinguished by star power, a strong female slant and the latest in stunts and effects.

In the early 19th century, martial arts wizard Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) is hanging up his sword, a legendary, 400-year-old blade known as Green Destiny. Although still keen on avenging the death of his late master, who was killed by the witchlike Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), Li now seems more inclined to a meditative life and entrusts the sword to Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a friend and warrior with whom he has experienced a mutual, long-suppressed love.

Delivering the sword to Beijing, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a petite, headstrong politician’s daughter who is unhappy over being forced into an arranged marriage, which only increases the envy she feels over the freewheeling lifestyle she imagines is enjoyed by Shu Lien.

When Green Destiny is stolen, it triggers a spectacular action sequence that tips the film’s hand about the many delights to come.

The set piece, which was staged by the incomparable action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, features Shu Lien chasing the masked female thief who’s made off with the sword.

Staged like an elaborate ballet, the thrilling nocturnal scene is skillfully designed to only gradually reveal the women’s abilities; at first they traverse walls and roofs with a hop, skip and a jump, then careen off surfaces as if with the help of Flubber, and finally show that they can propel themselves through the air like spring-loaded Peter Pans.

At the first screening in Cannes, sequence’s end was marked by a collective held breath, followed by an explosive ovation.

From here, the layers of melodrama in the script by Lee’s perennial producer James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling (“Eat Drink Man Woman”) and film critic Tsai Kuo Jung build up at a rapid rate.

A police inspector and his daughter, arrive to search for the sword and its thief; Li arrives in the city and eventually squares off against Jade Fox, who, it turns out, has also been masquerading as young Jen’s governess.

When Jade Fox is rescued at the last second by the masked thief, there is no longer any doubt that the latter is Jen, working in league with Jade Fox.

Despite her disposition toward evil, Li sees Jen as such an exceptional, if misguided, fighter that he offers to train her in the finer points of combat and selflessness, a proposal she refuses.

Instead, Jen is surprised by the arrival of her former lover, the desert outlaw Lo (Chang Chen). In a flashback, their impassioned romance in the wilderness of Western China is revealed at considerable, but quite beautiful, length.

Spurning Lo’s renewed advances, Jen commences her wedding ritual, only to slip away, Green Destiny in hand, and reappear at a frontier outpost; here, in an extended episode of hilarious mayhem, Jen single-handedly dispatches a few dozen armed thugs in a restaurant.

The surge toward a climax is started by another startling confrontation between Jen and Shu Lien, which occasions an intervention by Li, which in turn triggers the inevitable arrival of Jade Fox, who intends to kill Li just as she murdered his master.

In terms of visual spectacle, the final reels are highlighted by a staggering sequence that features Li and Jen flying through the air and finally alighting in tall, supple green trees and fighting as the branches bend with their weight. Ending is marked by elements both tragic and transcendent.

It’s the martial arts displays, swordplay and choreography (much it of courtesy of exemplary wire work) and protean special effects that will spark most of the talk surrounding “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

But its impact would not be nearly what it is without the exemplary casting and performances. Best known for his contempo actioners, Chow bestows Li with a centered calm that effectively offsets his violent outbursts when they occur.

Martial arts vet Yeoh, now known Stateside thanks to “Supercop” and “Tomorrow Never Dies,” lends impressive maturity to a role that’s also physically rigorous.

But the linchpin to the film’s dramatic success is Zhang First seen in Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home,” she has a diamond-hard charisma that the camera absorbs and magnifies, and the sight of this compact young woman holding her own with larger opponents is a constant delight.

Cheng Pei-pei makes a fine wicked witch as Jade Fox, while Chang Chen cuts a wildly romantic swath as Jen’s cowboy-style lover.

Brilliance of the action and effects are supplemented by a consistently superior and resourceful score by Tan Dun; unusual percussion work is sometimes used to accompany action set pieces, and the frequent cello passages are played by none other than Yo-Yo Ma. Tim Yip’s production and costume designs provide continual pleasure, as do the diverse locations throughout China.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Hong Kong-Taiwan-U.S.

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of a United China Vision production of a Sony Pictures Classics and Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia presentation in association with Good Machine Intl., an Edko Films, Zoom Hunt production in collaboration with China Film Co-Production Corp. and Asia Union Film & Entertainment Ltd. (International sales: Good Machine Intl., N.Y.) Produced by Bill Kong, Hsu Li Kong, Ang Lee. Executive producers, James Schamus, David Linde. Co-producers, Zheng Quan Gang, Dong Ping. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay, James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling, Tsai Kuo Jung, based on the novel by Wang Du Lu.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Peter Pau; editor, Tim Squyres; music, Tan Dun; cello solos, Yo-Yo Ma; production/costume designer, Tim Yip; sound (Dolby Digital), Andrew Paul Kunin; supervising sound editor, Eugene Gearty; action choreographer, Yuen Wo-Ping; special visual effects, MVFX; associate producers, Phillip Lee, Chui Po Chu; second unit camera, Choi Sung Fai. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 16, 2000. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Li Mu Bai - Chow Yun-fat
Yu Shu Lien - Michelle Yeoh
Jen - Zhang Ziyi
Lo - Chang Chen
Sir Te - Lung Sihung
Jade Fox - Cheng Pei-pei
Governor Yu - Li Fazeng
Bo - Gao Xian
Madam Yu - Hai Yan
Tsai - Wang Deming
May - Li Li
(Mandarin dialogue)

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