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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

FILM:
Perfect in every way, the gorgeous "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has a poignant love story, elevated scenes of martial arts and a splendid cast of actors.

ART:
Life? or Theater? is the title a German Jew in her 20s gave to the series of small paintings documenting her hopes, fears and experiences before she was sent to her death in Auschwitz.

BOOKS:
Long before the Food Channel and the overabundance of cookbooks, an Englishwoman named Elizabeth David introduced new tastes and techniques into the kitchens of England and, later, America. "Writing at the Kitchen Table" tells how and why she did it.

AND CONSIDER THIS:
The upheavals of war and revolution in Russia were minutely observed and written down by a volunteer Red Cross nurse in the memoir "With the Armies of the Tsar."

Film

Onward and Upward with the Women Warriors

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
Written by James Schamus, Wang Huiling and Tsai Kuojong
Directed by Ang Lee

Flying above green, swaying treetops, two martial-arts experts continue the duel they began on the ground. One of them is a woman.

Appearing out of the shadows on an evil night, a cruel assassin claims another victim. The killer is a woman.

Leaping and spinning across the stones of a spacious courtyard, a pair of fighters do battle with a succession of fearsome weapons. Both are women.

This is the year of the women warrior, but skilled though they are in the craft of deadly combat, the females of the gorgeous “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are tormented by love, by ambition, by desire for revenge. They are, in short, fully human. It is this, as much as the film's breathtaking aerial scenes with opponents chasing one another up walls of buildings and across moonlit roofs or bounding across water that lifts the kung-fu genre to heights never before dreamed of. Except, perhaps, in the vivid imagination of director Ang Lee. And he is reaping the rewards for his bold vision; he and his film have already picked up a slew of awards in the U.S. and Europe, and the $15 million spectacle has received Golden Globe best-director and best-foreign language -film nominations. Oscar should come calling as well.

The plot kicks off with the decision by the great Wudan champion Mu Bai, to relinquish his legendary sword Green Destiny and no longer shed blood. For a long time Mu Bai (the elegant and introspective Chow Yun Fat) has loved, without acknowledging it, the wise and dignified Shu Lien, herself a renowned warrior. But the sword is stolen, and he must return to fighting and faces two deadly adversaries. One is Jade Fox, an enemy of old who had killed Mu Bai's master, and the other is her mysterious and brilliant young follower, who is revealed to be the aristocratic and headstrong Jen. The three females symbolize different aspects of womanhood: impetuosity, patience and resentment. Shu Lien (beautifully acted by Michelle Yeoh) has long waited, silently, for Mu Bai to declare his love; in her sad, wise eyes, we see the tolls exacted by her stoic sacrifice.

Jade Fox (a frighteningly villainous Chang Peipei) learned fighting as a craft, not as an art. Embittered by always being regarded as inferior, she is obsessed with vengeance. Her revenge is to teach Jen (the stunning newcomer Zhang Ziyi) to wage the deadly skills of combat with efficiency and no emotion, but her plans go awry when the impetuous young woman and a bandit named Lo have a romantic encounter. Jen is torn between self-centered ambition for the life of an invincible warrior and her desire to be a woman loved. Heedless of the destruction she is inviting, she steals the Green Destiny--not once but twice--and is contemptuous of Shu Lien, who demands its return. (Not since Excalibur has a sword caused such mischief.)

All the martial-arts scenes leave the opponents, and the audience, breathless. Instead of being separate events, set arbitrarily into the film much like a musical number in an Elvis Presley movie, they flow through this glorious, moving fable of love, betrayal, and death. Though the movie is in Mandarin with English subtitles, our understanding of the characters extends well beyond the meaning of the words that flash across the screen. When Mu Bai tells Shu Lien that his love "will never let me be a lonely spirit,'' we see into both their hearts.

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