Ang Lee’s Tiger kills

Rating: NNNNNCannes ­-- Michelle Yeoh sweeps into the Carlton Hotel's beach restaurant looking every inch (just 63 of them) the.

Rating: NNNNN

Cannes ­– Michelle Yeoh sweeps into the Carlton Hotel’s beach restaurant looking every inch (just 63 of them) the movie star in an embroidered blue silk pants outfit.

Her director, Ang Lee, looks as if he should be busing the tables. After seven days of very serious art at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee’s epic martial arts movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has been shown to the critics, who broke into applause mid-screening.

What’s unusual is that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a top-notch action movie directed by a great actor’s director.

How smart is Lee? Smart enough to hire Woo-ping Yuen, whose credits as a martial arts choreographer go all the way back to the original Drunken Master movies and up to Jet Li’s Fist Of Legend and The Matrix, to organize the film’s unique fight scenes.

Well, unique up to a point.

“Fight scenes in martial arts movies are a pretty standard group of set pieces,” Lee notes dryly.

“There’s the one-on-one fight, for the climax. There’s a group fight, which is always a mess and doesn’t really allow for great stunt work. Then there’s the tavern fight, where the action doesn’t have to match when it cuts, so you can just let the star give a great bravura performance and take on as many opponents as the film can afford.”

Ang Lee’s isn’t a name one expects to see attached to this kind of movie, but, then, it’s not a name one associates with any particular genre.

He’s never made the same movie twice, and he delights in confounding expectations.

From his pair of China-based comedies, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, he moved on to the suburban angst of The Ice Storm, to the 19th-century England of Sense And Sensibility and to the American Civil War in the criminally underrated Ride With The Devil.

“The world of film is like Baskin-Robbins ­– there are so many flavours that I couldn’t choose just one.”

Yeoh and Lee are effusive in their praise for each another. Yeoh compares the film ­– made entirely in Mandarin, which she does not speak ­– with Shakespeare. Lee says Yeoh is the only actor who’s ever made him cry while he was shooting a scene.

“The problem with most action movies is that usually really good actors can’t move like that, and most action stars can’t act,” he says.

Which brings us to Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat strung up on wires and flying through the air. Yeoh tore a ligament in her knee during her first big action scene (she landed badly off a kick) and had to undergo surgery while the film shot around her. She says the producers decided to take full advantage of the fact that the wires can now be digitally erased. This means thicker wires can be used, allowing the actors to do more elaborate stunts.

“But because you feel more confident, you have to be more careful ­– your timing has to be perfect. Otherwise, it looks terrible and you can also injure yourself on your landings. You’re running in the air and trying to catch the edges of rooftops. I’ve done a lot of wire work, and you can break your ankle.”

This is Lee’s second big action movie, and he says that what he learned on his first, Ride With The Devil, is that even in an action movie the characters are everything.

“When we were previewing Ride With The Devil, whenever a character got more than three feet from Tobey (Maguire), people were bored.”

Yeoh, for her part, learned that her director is a dogged perfectionist.

“Ang would call cut and say, “Michelle, the third word of the fourth sentence, you really didn’t stress the first syllable like you should.’

“Then you do the fight scenes very fast, and you have to show power when you punch or kick. If you do a series of six or seven punches, and the fifth and sixth punches were weak, he’d stop us and do it again. “I told him if he thought swinging the sword was so easy, he should try.”

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, directed by Ang Lee, produced by Lee, Li-Kong Hsu and William Kong, written by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus and Kuo Jung Tsai from the novel by Du Lu Wang, with Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Ziyi Zhang. 120 minutes. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Opens Friday (December 8). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 97. Rating: NNNNN

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