Asian tiger

Film - Jonathan Romney gets a big kick out of Ang Lee's martial arts adventure

Over the past decade, the Taiwanese director Ang Lee has offered a teasing challenge to students of auteur consistency. An analyst of editing technique, shot lengths and deep-structure subtexts could probably tell you immediately what kind of signature unites Lee's disparate films. However, for most of us, it's simply a question of being dazzled by his accomplished genre-hopping. He has made domestic comedies in both America and Taiwan (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman), a trenchant study of mid-1970s suburban America (The Ice Storm), a Jane Austen adaptation (Sense and Sensibility) and, rather less successfully, an American civil war drama (Ride With the Devil).

But Lee is clearly not one of those try-anything directors who simply bob along with whatever chance offers them. For all his reluctance to plaster an immediately apparent self over his work, he is anything but anonymous; rather, his reserve comes across as a sort of masterly tact. His latest film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, takes on yet another genre, the Asian martial arts adventure, and one metaphor in it offers a rather elegant key to his work. The film's young heroine leads a double life, following a clandestine career as a swordfighter as well as dutifully studying the traditional female arts such as calligraphy. But, it is pointed out in one scene, "Calligraphy is so similar to fencing." So, too, with Lee's art as director: we are used to characterising directorial flourishes as a kind of macho swordsmanship but, even in a film specifically about combat, Lee's style cultivates the virtues of elegance and control. The thrill here, as in his other films (notably Eat Drink, his treatise on families and cuisine), lies in invention, expertise and intelligence.

Set during the Qing dynasty, in the early 19th century, Crouching Tiger is something that western cinema rarely produces convincingly, Charlie's Angels notwithstanding - a really rattling girl's adventure story. One of its heroines, the young Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), is destined to be married, but leads a fighter's existence by night, having once shared a romantic idyll with the dashing brigand Lo (Chang Chen). Its other heroine, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), runs a company that is rather comically referred to in the subtitles as "Sun Security" (no satin bomber jackets here), and herself entertains an unspoken passion for the august, heroic swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat). The plot involves the theft of an antique sword and, whether or not the Chinese dialogue makes it clear, the subtitles certainly play on its phallic nature, given that it is fated to fall into the hands of so many swashbuckling women. "Two foot nine inches long, seven-tenths of an inch thick," comments a greybeard, appraising it ruefully. "It only comes alive through skilful manipulation."

The sexuality is not just a matter of innuendo: erotic tensions are close to the surface, especially in the rapturous extended flashback of Jen's meeting with Lo. It begins as a chase through imposing desert scenery (shot by Peter Pau, this is, among other things, a dazzling landscape film), becomes a hand-to-hand conflict and culminates in a subterranean lovers' rhapsody. The echoes here of Rudolph Valentino's Sheik are surely no accident - Lee and his regular American writer-producer, James Schamus (who collaborated with the Taiwanese screenwriters Wang Hui-Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung), are pretty knowing in their cross-cultural references. Although it can be facile to map one set of cultural references on to another, you can't help hearing playful genre echoes here: Crouching Tiger feels very much like an Asian western, as it were, with Yeoh as a trail boss, a tough Barbara Stanwyck sort of dame, and Chow Yun-Fat as a lone Alan Ladd gunman. Asian and American cinemas were reworking each other's myths well before Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven, but these days the two-way traffic is more complex than ever, with Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat among several Asian stars to cultivate Hollywood careers. Crouching Tiger itself reworks the martial arts movie for an international market accustomed to the quickfire special-effects action of sci-fi movies such as The Matrix, which borrowed its best combat riffs from the east; indeed, it shares that film's "action choreographer", Yuen Woo-Ping.

"Choreography" is the word. Few action films are as joyously musical, as dance-like, as this one. Here, a fight is never just a fight, but can come in several different registers - from the comic chaos of Jen's saloon brawl with an army of plug-uglies to the balletic weightlessness of an airborne battle above a bamboo grove, the opponents pacing each other like elegant phantoms. It is a scene that genuinely gives battle the feathery elegance of calligraphy.

Crouching Tiger is not only a stunningly accomplished entertainment, but also something of a test case, if not an open attempt to redraw the map of international cinema. A Chinese/Taiwanese/American co-production, it was the most prominent of the several Asian films that dominated last summer's Cannes Film Festival. It has done extremely well in Asia, where it was received as a mainstream blockbuster. However, in the west, it will be marketed as a foreign-language "art-house" release. The "art-house" tag is meaningless, given that the film delivers all the pleasures traditionally expected of (and all too rarely delivered by) big-budget Hollywood action films. The film opened in the United States in December, and American critics were dazzled by its artistic swagger. Several Asian action directors have found their own place in the Hollywood mainstream, to largely unsatisfying effect - witness John Woo's dreary Mission: Impossible 2. But the decidedly un-mainstream Ang Lee has rewritten the rules, and is offering the international market a film that is Chinese to the core. I'd be amazed if it doesn't clean up in the west.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (12) is released nationwide on 5 January