Can you make a martial-arts film into a serious drama? That's been the question hanging over director Ang Lee's new film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yet, it's like asking if a western need be frivolous-and a performance-driven piece like High Noon, that does much to hide its western-ness, need not be the answer. The crosscultural comparison is worth making, not only because the martial-arts genre has a discredited history, and the western did as well, which gradually wore off between The Wild Bunch's calamitous reception and Unforgiven's Oscar. Lee's film seems to emphasize the horse-opera side to the Hong Kong screen specialty, and deliberately recalls the cinematic western in a number of ways. A craggy canyon in one sequence, for instance, utterly brings to mind Monument Valley, and Lee's exploitation of a procession traversing it, drawn into battle with bandits, has John Ford stamped on it, particularly Stagecoach. A pair of preposterous swordmen, boastful, mismatched, grungy and comically stupid, dredge up the memory of Peckinpah pals Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones; it's the cocky, insipid and desperate look in their eyes that we see in a two-shot which ignites the connection. While not by any means camping up the Eastern movie form or its literary sources, Lee seems to frankly acknowledge the influence of Hollywood on Asian moviemaking, and that to quote the martial-arts style means looking back both to ancient Chinese stories, and some of the emotional cues, sideline characters and plot details of shoot-'em-ups.

Lee most certainly is obsessed with paying homage to the fist-fighting and sword-slashing epics of Hong Kong, but he demands it be done on his own terms. The quietude and compositional rigor of The Ice Storm re-emerge here, functioning to assert the director's control over the material he means to celebrate. In fact, in the opening, we can almost feel that the calibrated grays, tans and dull reds, scrupulously positioned on the screen as though painted on sheets, are there to throw off or delay our expectations of bloody conflict. When are these fellows going to demonstrate the obscurely known sword strokes that are the stock-in-trade of Eastern action movies? Hand-to-hand combat is just around the corner, but Lee's calmness and precision, manifest throughout, serve a number of duties. These qualities temper the prevailing kookiness of martial-arts movies, mirror the discipline that the real-life fighting programs require, and intimate the true craft that goes into choreographing and blocking even a standard film of this genre. Lee critiques as he glorifies, and ends up distilling the essential drama from the Hong Kong action style.

As the story opens, warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) returns from a period of meditation to his sleepy hometown and his lady friend Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). It's rumored that Li is ready to give up the fighting life and settle into marriage. He decides to deposit his favorite sword, called the Green Destiny, with a friendly local leader, Sir Te (Lung Sihung). The shifty Governor Yu (Li Fa Zeng) is visiting Te's estate at this time, but, when the instrument is reported stolen, it's not Yu that Li should suspect, but his ambitious, talented, fight-crazy daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi). Jen is under the influence of the brilliant crone Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), who poses as Jen's governess. Jan plucked the sword because she was awestruck by it, and having it gave her the feeling that she might attain more control over her destiny than the life as a diplomat's wife that's been arranged for her. But Jade Fox's intentions are far more sinister, which leads to a showdown against Li and Shu, with Jen caught between allegiances. Jen must additionally decide between settling for her approaching marriage, or departing with the lusty desert bandit Lo (Chang Chen), with whom she once carried on a rambunctious romance.

The feminist angle imparts substance to this tale of intrigue, without losing sight of the humor, adventure and epic sweep that are always present. But chiefly, Crouching Tiger is a finely wrought flight of fancy. Lee continues and expands the potent use of landscape found in Ride With the Devil, giving us some breathtaking vistas that we might not have imagined to exist in China. The most delightful element is his gleeful and knowing use of film design, technology and history. Combatants don't just leap through the air, they sail Peter Pan-style; sets such as Jade Fox's lair pronounce themselves as vividly as Sternberg's luscious decor for his Dietrich vehicles; plot incidents reminiscent of westerns accumulate no less openly than they do in several of Kurosawa's samurai pictures. Ang Lee incorporates Western and Eastern traits effortlessly, resulting in an entertainment rich for the mind and one that tickles the eye.

--Peter Henne