Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon A
Year Released: 2000
The sacred Green Dynasty, a sword of legend, has been taken from its resting place within the sanctum of Sir Te. The thief in the night, a masked woman clad in black, leaps across rooftops and scampers along the walls without making a sound.
Her only match is the experienced warrior, Yu Shun Lien (played by that heroic master of the martial art film, Michelle Yeoh) who pursues her whether they spin through the air, leap across rooftops or fly along walls, their blades swishing through the wind and gliding against each other. Whether on the land, in the air or somewhere in-between, these two women fight while the men wait below.
This fight scene belongs among the birds in the sky, or carried along on the back of an agile preying mantis. Only 20 minutes into Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it has already become the finest scene of the year. It's only the first of several breathtaking confrontations which are elemental in their purity.
Already, this movie had me in its power. My hands were taut, my arms trembled. The breath was caught in my throat and my eyes glimmered with the hint of tears. Losing track of time, I forgot how long this fight scene lasted -- it felt as though it could go on forever, and there I'd be, utterly hypnotized.
When it finally reached its inevitable conclusion, I started to applaud. It did not come as a surprise that the rest of the packed theater house joined me with their hands to celebrating the magic of cinema.
Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
He has already built up an impressive body of work for a relatively young filmmaker. In his forties, Ang Lee already boasts having made one of the most nuanced, subtle and morally complex films of the '90s: The Ice Storm, written by his frequent collaborator James Schamus.
Lee's skill lies in slow revelation of character, with revelations found in the silences that linger between words. His intimate dramas followed families and relationships, parents and children, the fear of paralysis in love. With the exception of his Civil War drama, Ride With the Devil, there was no indication that Lee would so effortlessly translate this quiet breed of cinema to the realm of romantic adventures.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took Ang Lee seven films to create. He has graduated to become one of the few filmmakers who possess the ability to make a crowd pleasing, rousing, emotionally sweeping melodrama which doesn't lapse into predictability, cliché, sentiment, soppiness or fogginess.
In a year where almost every summer movie crumbled and fell, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon serves as a reminder of what the action film and the love story can be.
Like many fairy tales and fables, the plot is simple and easy to follow. Li Mu Bai (international action superstar Chow Yun Fat, in a role worthy of his talent) is the master of the martial arts who wields the Green Dynasty blade. Weary from his travels, he only hopes to find some small peace at the end of his journey.
In his search for a different path, Li asks a favor of his trusted ally, Shun Lien (Yeoh). He no longer wishes to wield the Green Dynasty and has her deliver it to the home of Sir Te (Lung Sihung, a warm and welcome presence -- he's the clever father from many of Lee's previous films including The Wedding Banquet). Holding in her heart a secret love for Li, Shun Lien carries out his wishes while he goes away to meditate.
The bittersweet saga of Li and Shun Lien is one of the two intertwining plots which run through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Their scenes are played seated across from each other at a table unable to express their innermost feelings. As Sir Te points out time and again, these two -- the greatest warriors in the land -- are idiots when it comes to professing their love, which takes more courage than you might think.
The major subplot involves Shun Lien's young friend, Jen (relative newcomer Zhang Ziyi), who will marry against her wishes to a politician's son. Jen dreams of becoming a fighter like her sister-figure, despite Shun Lien's protestations that the life of a Yuan warrior is not as romantic as the storybooks say. Shun Lien knows well that the role of the woman in this society is constricting. Jen's road will not be an easy one.
The sword, of course, is stolen. Li and Shun Lien cannot rest until it is rediscovered. We quickly learn that the thief who stole away with it is in the employ of Li's arch nemesis, another powerful female character known as the Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei).
While the secret thief is ultimately no mystery (using Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters), even to the two warriors, I'll choose not to reveal that information here. You'll fare better seeing the movie for yourself. There are richer surprises yet to come.
Fight Choreographer Yuen Wo Ping
Special credit should go to Yuen Mo Ping, that master who elevates fight choreography to an art form. He's best known for his outstanding work in The Matrix but surpasses himself here.
Whether it be desert combat in the mountains, one solitary martial artist against many, or the indescribable combat which takes place upon the windy treetops, Yuen creates magic.
The stillness of Chow Yun Fat as he rests on the very tip of a swaying branch after having raced across a lake skimming the surface of the water has to be seen to truly be believed. These scenes take place on existential, zen battlefields, entering into the realm of philosophy.
More Than Just Girl Power
All the more stunning is that these dynamic, historic fight scenes are mostly controlled by women characters. Chow Yun Fat is perfect as the greatest fighter alive, but he's gracefully passive as the story is held together by Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.
It's empowering to see women fighting men in hand-to-hand combat and winning. Ang Lee does much more than that, though. He makes every major decision in the film, for good or for ill, defined by these women. It doesn't shirk from sensitivity, but manages to place that hand in hand with courage, integrity and bravery.
Chow Yun Fat's role in the film is the one traditionally regarded as feminine while Yeoh and, especially, Zhang (whose story arc takes her from girl to woman) take the reins often reserved for masculine types like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba.
Unlike their male counterparts, however, there's no love of competition or glorious victory here. The urge to squash or destroy the bad guy would only serve to corrupt. That has nothing to do with true justice. Even as the villain of this film is inevitably destroyed, something great must also die.
The Call of Adventure
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been critically acclaimed. Sometimes, that can be a bad sign. The movie gets overhyped and the expectations grow too high. In this case, don't let the praise scare you off.
When I think of films that win festivals and awards, my thoughts drift toward bloated examples of ponderous weight and pretension, both long winded and slow going. Like the best of all crowd pleasing classics, thinking of John Ford or Steven Spielberg in their prime, Ang Lee has created a movie which is modest in its desire to entertain and enchant.
Solid craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera is what makes a great story memorable and distinctive. The patience of Ang Lee and James Schamus, the luminescent beauty of Peter Pau's cinematography, and the haunting score by Tan Dun (best known for the experimental opera, Marco Polo) are matched by the dynamite cast. Perhaps Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh will find the wide American audience they have so richly deserved for so long.
* * *
Think of a glistening underground pool in which is reflected the golden glow of lightning bugs, or of a forest after a warm summer rain. In counterpoint, think of wind against your skin as you run through the night or of being able to leap high enough to touch the stars.
Those are the sensations of this film. Now imagine feeling those while tucked into the coziness of your bed as you read a tale of high adventure with your flashlight.
The mixture of poetry in motion combined with the hair raising thrill of the cliffhanger are what make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon one of the best films of the year.
Review published 12.15.2000.
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