Sunday, July 9th, 2000
Life section

Time and love wait for no man

Smouldering Memories

Lee Ang's film, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, is a poignant tale of lost
youth. Its meditation on the passage of time is what affects the middle-aged

ITS been a long while since I was moved enough by a movie to want to write about it.

Lee Ang's sword-fighting film, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, exhilarated me, but it also affected me in a way I could not quite make out, until after I had stolen time off work for a second viewing on Thursday, when it opened on 30 screens.

I first watched it at an earlier special screening at GV Plaza for readers of Life! This Weekend, which included the treat of a brief appearance by the Beijing actress Zhang Ziyi, who had come to town to promote the movie together with the director and co-stars Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh.

The 21-year-old was unimpressive in person, but she was very good in the movie. And this was only her second outing. Her first was also a starring role, in Zhang Yimou's rural paean, The Road Home, released last year.

In Lee's movie, set in Qing China, she plays a delicate but wildly impetuous daughter of a governor who has just returned to Beijing from his tour of hardship duty in the deserts of Xinjiang.

Her Manchurian parents have arranged for her to be married to the son of a higher Han official, but she yearns to be a free xia-niu (swordswoman).

Like Yeoh, for instance, whose exploits with the super swordsman Chow in the jianghu (literally, rivers and lakes, the undergound, a term as evocative of Chinese swordfighting myths as ""the frontier'' is of American cowboy legends), are the stuff of her dreams.

But the older Yeoh, who heads a Wells Fargo-like security and courier outfit, is not as free as the girl thinks.

Bound by honour, or yi, to a dead third party, Yeoh and Chow have not been able to articulate their love for each other for all their adult years. And they are now entering middle age.

When the movie opens, Chow has just come down from the mountains where he had gone for a deep meditation retreat.

But as he tells Yeoh, instead of enlightenment, he had arrived at a place where his late master had not told him before, ""surrounded by light but filled with sorrow''.

He's got something he cannot let go of. But before he can tell her what that is, the couple are interrupted by someone.

Throughout the rest of the movie, until towards the end, they are always interrupted just at the point when he's on the verge of declaring his love for her.

The tension of their unspoken love makes for sweet romance, but what really affected me, now that I've worked it out, is really the movie's meditation on middle age and loss.

Both Chow and Yeoh are mourning the passage of time. So many years of duty and denial. So little time left for love. And now, even Chow's wish to hang up his precious 400-year-old sword is not granted, as trouble comes looking
for him.

It comes in the shape of the young Ziyi. In her, the couple see all the privileges of youth that they have lost.

Her innocence, her fierce yearning for independence, her vulnerability, and yes, her sexuality.

Yeoh indulges her. Chow wants to be her master, to straighten her out, because her martial skills are misfired (zou huo ru mo), since she had picked them up wrongly on her own from a stolen manual.

The conceit of the middle-aged -- they always think they can straighten out the wayward young. And when it's a sweet young thing, what really does an older man want when he volunteers readily to take her under his wings?

In Chow's case, as Yeoh protests to him, his Wudan school has never accepted women disciples.

""I'll make an exception,'' he says decisively. If only he can be as less hesistant with the older Yeoh ...

There is a scene towards the end of the movie when a drugged Ziyi asks Chow: ""Is it the sword you came for or me?''

The middle-aged male viewer -- okay, me -- finds himself wishing desperately for some show of ambivalence in the face of the righteous Chow.

The theme of lost youth is made poignant in a long flashback sequence in the middle of the movie, which celebrates Yizi's falling in love with a disgustingly handsome young bandit leader, Chang Chen, in Xinjiang.

They fight on horsebacks, then make rude love in his lair. In the end, filial duty demands that she leaves her lover to return to her family. But at least, she has seized the day.

The movie's theme is made doubly poignant for the middle-aged viewer when he recognises the actress who plays Ziyi's evil nanny.

It's Zheng Peipei, the original xia-niu in King Hu's Come Drink With Me (1965) and Dragon Inn (1967), the two movies which ushered in a golden period of wuxia pian or swordfighting movies in Chinese cinema.

How can the passage of time not register, now that he is confronted with this older woman whose bloom has faded, when in his memory, she has stayed an attractive heroine who catches deadly darts in mid-air nonchalantly with
a pair of chopsticks?

It's been more than 30 years, after all.

""Nothing that you can hold is permanent,'' is how the sagely Chow puts it.

The comfort of spirituality, when the fire of youth is now just a smouldering memory.

Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F