Romancing the Sword ; Bounce Is a Plane Crash

Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , from a screenplay by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung, based on the novel by Wang Du Lu, transcends its period martial-arts genre with balletic grace and lyrical romanticism. The story follows a magic sword called the Green Destiny, beginning with Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), a renowned martial artist who has grown tired of killing and wishes to find meaning in life. This means giving away the sword. When he arrives at the Yuan Security Compound run by his longtime friend, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), he asks her to take the Green Destiny to a revered leader and friend of her father, Sir Te (Lung Sihung), in Beijing. Shu Lien pleads with Li to join her on the trip to Beijing and return the sword himself, and the pair’s evident attraction becomes one of the major narrative strands of the film.

What keeps them apart is Li’s ever-shifting spiritual compass. On this occasion, he refuses Shu Lien’s plea because he is on his way to Wudan Mountain-the retreat for the most accomplished martial artists-to pay his respects to his late master, who long ago was poisoned by a notorious female malefactor, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei). Li agrees to try to meet Shu Lien later in Beijing, but he seems determined to resist her clear signals for a closer relationship. He seems troubled and unsure of what he is seeking. Later, events will conspire to drive him into a closer involvement with the turbulent world he wants to escape.

We gradually realize that Shu Lien is, like Li, a great warrior, and this is not the last time we shall become aware of women as formidable action figures. Indeed, when Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the beautiful young daughter of Governor Yu (Li Fa Zeng), a prominent political leader, the stage is set for all kinds of confrontations between men and women, and women and women, on a level playing field. Consequently, when Jen expresses her admiration for Shu Lien’s prowess as a warrior, the two women form a bond as sisters, though that too will be tested in the days to come.

The first eruption of martial-arts violence occurs when a masked intruder steals the Green Destiny and successfully eludes capture by Sir Te’s security officers. At first, the spectacular choreography of Yuen Wo-Ping introduces a jarring element into the film for art-house spectators who have never warmed to the Hong Kong school of popular kung fu entertainments. The surreal levitation achieved by leaps and suspended movements gives the well-established characters a mystically physical dimension that adds to their stature in the narrative. And the landscapes and mountainscapes of ageless China do the rest.

The second love story involves Jen and Lo (Chang Chen), a bandit chieftain with the chivalrous instincts of a Knight of the Round Table. Lo’s stormy courtship of Jen is told in flashback and sets up the final stunning images of the film. The counterpoint between the mature relationship of Li and Shu Lien and the youthfully impetuous coupling of Jen and Lo provides the film with a dazzling variety of devices to illuminate the inner lives of the characters.

All that is needed to bring the separate destinies of the major characters to a climactic unity is the resourceful villainy of Jade Fox, in her guise as Jen’s governess. A bare-bones synopsis of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon cannot begin to describe the extraordinarily sensuous beauty of the film and the dramatic conviction of the characters. The last scene between Li and Shu Lien reminds me of nothing so much as the exquisite sadness of Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976). But much else in the film does not remind me of anything at all in its flash of color and movement. Particularly original is a fantastic duel between Li and Jen in the luxurious green foliage of treetops swaying with the movements of the antagonists. It is out of such exterior ecstasies that the interiority of the characters emerges.

There has been some talk of Oscar consideration for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in this lean year. Still, odds are against this Asian film with Asian cast members. My own guess is that it is too subtly good for the Oscars, and perhaps for mass-audience tastes as well. I have even heard complaints that it is too “commercial.” Let us hope so. In any event, it is on my Christmas don’t-miss list for all my readers and listeners.

Italian Comedy’s Poet Laureate

Alberto Simone’s Moon Shadow (Colpo di Luna) , from his own screenplay, reflects a humanist tradition in Italian cinema that has never been diminished by postmodern irony and cynicism. The movie itself is modest in its narrative intentions, and simple in its technical means. It is ultimately a plea for loving and understanding the mentally ill by trying to normalize their existence.

Mr. Simone, born 38 years ago in Messina, Sicily, lives and works in Rome, where he moved at the age of 19. He studied psychology and, in 1986, specialized in individual and group psychotherapy. He worked very recently in advertising as a copywriter and a creator of ad campaigns. His psychiatric background eventually came to the fore during frequent lectures at the Maieusis therapeutic community in Capena, near Rome, where he conducted sessions on creative expression for the young mentally ill residents. These experiences inspired him to write and direct the short film La Scala Poggiata alla Luna in 1997. This was the forerunner to his first feature film, Moon Shadow .

Lorenzo (Tchéky Karyo), an astrophysicist, returns to his abandoned childhood home in Sicily and finds himself stranded there when the funding for his latest project is terminated. He originally planned to repair his home in order to sell it, and for that purpose he hires a recommended contractor named Salvatore (Nino Manfredi). Gradually, he realizes that Salvatore’s peculiarly behaving crew has come out of an institution run by a progressive mental-health administrator named Titto (Johan Leyson). Salvatore’s own son, Agostino (Jim Van der Woude), is an inmate, though Salvatore is not. Lorenzo is at first repelled by the inmates, though he reluctantly becomes receptive to the advances of Luisa (Isabelle Pasco), a beautiful but disturbed pianist.

When Salvatore is gravely injured in a fall from a roof, an accident caused by his son’s maladroit movements, Lorenzo decides to wash his hands of the whole business. But the unyielding love of Salvatore for his son opens Lorenzo’s eyes. All this time, he concludes, he has been looking through the wrong end of the telescope and has thus ignored the humanity around him. Nino Manfredi, as the histrionically eloquent Salvatore, continues his illustrious career as one of Italian comedy’s poet laureates. Moon Shadow is a small film, but a moving experience.

Bounce Is Flat

Don Roos’ Bounce , from his own screenplay, continues the odd trend of building romances out of airplane crashes. Random Hearts started the anti-in-flight-movie pattern earlier this year, and Cast Away threatens to bring it to a spectacular climax. I haven’t seen Cast Away yet, but I must say I much preferred Random Hearts to Bounce , which places me in profound disagreement with most of my critical colleagues. I was particularly disappointed in Mr. Roos because I thought he displayed less wit and verve and, yes, buoyancy in the inaptly titled Bounce than he did in his first feature film, The Opposite of Sex .

I am not blaming the leads, Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow, particularly, but rather the tortured roles through which they both suffer. Mr. Affleck plays Buddy Amaral, an initially happy-go-lucky advertising executive who gives his standby ticket to Greg Janello (Tony Goldwyn), a devoted family man, so that Buddy can indulge in an opportune one-night stand. Ms. Paltrow plays Abby Janello, the bereaved widow after her husband’s plane crashes.

Wracked with guilt over his “good luck,” Buddy sets out to atone by playing Santa Claus to Abby and her two children while slowly courting her-without telling her about the switched tickets. The trouble is, Abby is needy in a lovably klutzy way. I much preferred the self-assurance of the Kristin Scott-Thomas character in Random Hearts . Also, Buddy’s moral anguish is unduly prolonged and dispiriting, and the high price he has to pay for Abby’s forgiveness after deceiving her comes right out of old Hollywood scripts. I just didn’t buy it, and all the writer-director’s ingenious plot gimmicks actually worked against the characters and their romance.

Another Hard Day’s Night

Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), from a screenplay by Alun Owen, is being re-released at the Film Forum with a fully restored negative and digitally restored soundtrack. Front and center, of course, are the four Beatles-Paul, John, Ringo and George-with considerable comic support from Victor Spinetti, Anna Quayle and Wilfred Branbell. But for many of us, the poignantly vibrant ghost of the late John Lennon will be especially gripping. Was it 36 years ago that I hailed A Hard Day’s Night as the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies? How time flies, and how stirringly the cinema preserves it!