"I want you to be mine forever," the young man confides to the young woman. You can't get much more romantic than that, especially when the couple stands on the edge of a mountain plateau overlooking a vast panorama of land and sky.
But "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" also contains this scene, in which a dying martial-arts master chooses to forego his years of discipline and confess for the first time to his beloved, "I want to tell you with my last breath ... I have always loved you. I would rather be a ghost, drifting by your side as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you."
While director Ang Lee's stunning new film is a martial-arts period piece, it is also, above all, a tragic romance that twines the fates of these two pairs of lovers from different generations.
The older couple, Li Muibai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shulien (Michelle Yeoh), are among the elite of the jiang hu, the martial-arts world just beneath the realm of society and law. He's a superior Wudan warrior who has had enough of fighting; after years of meditation, he has found not enlightenment but endless sorrow. She's a highly skilled martial artist for hire who works security for traveling caravans.
Li recognizes enormous talent and potential in the younger Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a province governor, and is eager to instruct her in the secrets of the Wudan. Like "Star Wars," here is a story of good and evil, and whether Jen will turn to the dark side. But in Jen and her lover, the bandit Lo (Chang Chen), Li and Yu also recognize the energy and freedom of their younger selves, and what might have been had they not sacrificed their love for a life of duty. Meanwhile, Jen's recklessness sets the plot in motion; the suffering of others leads her to her destiny and a liberating conclusion.
"Crouching Tiger" is the first pairing of Chow and Yeoh, two of Hong Kong's most famous actors. (Her first line to him is, "It's been too long.") Little is said in their quiet scenes together, but their nuanced characterizations, expressed through gestures and facial expression, speak volumes, and the touch of a hand becomes a significant and sensual moment. With limited screentime, the charismatic Chow delivers a strong and subtle performance, and the master's presence is always felt.
Those unfamiliar with old-style Hong Kong action will be mesmerized by the soaring, leaping and exhilirating martial-arts movements. Courtesy of action director Yuen Wo-ping's wire-worked choreography and hundreds of computer effects, the fantasy action is transportive. Yet it's not just the choreography but the camerawork that flows. Lee has described the integration of action and nonaction scenes as a dance, and cinematographer Peter Pau and editor Tim Squyres take no false steps.
Size and space, lighting, fabric textures and patches of color accentuate character and movement. Low-contrast tones make the cinematography look like a fine Chinese watercolor. Framing through doorways and a gliding camera add to the effect. Tan Dun's musical contribution, combining Western and Eastern orchestration with Yo-Yo Ma's plaintive cello solos, deepens the mood.
Some may find the title puzzling. "Crouching tiger" refers to Lo, whose Chinese name means "little tiger"; "hidden dragon" refers to Jen, whose Chinese name has "dragon" embedded in it. And Li tells Yu, "Jiang hu is a world of tigers and dragons, full of corruption." For Lee, the meaning of the film lies in the "hidden dragon" inside us all -- those passions and desires that are mysterious and potent.