A peek at the director of ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon''

By Chris Nashawaty
December 23, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

As a young boy growing up in Taiwan, Ang Lee would sneak off to the movies and while away his afternoons, hypnotized by the silver screen. It didn’t make a lick of difference what was up on the marquee — Bruce Lee kung fu cavalcades or weepy period romances — Lee just wanted to be swept away. ”Whatever was playing in the theater, I would go there and go crazy,” the 46-year-old director says with an almost-wistful smile.

Hmmm, Bruce Lee movies and romantic epics… Before this year, that unholy coupling might have sounded like cinematic oil and water. But Lee has dared to stir the two together, conjuring the balletically breathtaking alchemy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

For anyone following Lee’s career thus far, the oddball notion of making a martial-arts love story (in Mandarin Chinese, no less) may not come as much of a shock. Whether he’s studying the prim drawing rooms of Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility or the spiraling suburban hedonism of The Ice Storm, Lee has flawlessly zigzagged genres like an impatient Indy driver. ”Ang has often said that if he lived another life he would have wanted to be a director-for-hire in 1940s Hollywood,” says his longtime producing and writing partner James Schamus, ”because then you get to put on different pictures and you get to make all these different kinds of movies…it’s aesthetic greed.”

Aside from those of us who’ve whiled away afternoons with Lee’s films — hypnotized like he once was — the biggest beneficiaries of the director’s aesthetic greed have been the actresses lucky enough to star in them (think Emma Thompson in Sense or Sigourney Weaver in Storm). Still, Crouching Tiger‘s gravity-defying fight scenes between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi (see story on page 42) redefine Girl Power, both tender and tough. One minute, the lovelorn Yeoh and the rebellious Zhang might be having a sisterly heart-to-heart on the backseat role of women in 18th-century China; but the next, they’re skipping across moonlit rooftops like gazelles, stopping only to kick the stuffing out of each other. Should Hollywood ever make good on its promise to deliver the Year of the Woman, we know only one place it could start looking for directors: Ang Lee.