Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence and some sexuality.

Starring Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Chow Yun-Fat, Sihung Lung.
Directed by Ang Lee.
Written by Hui Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai, James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Kuo-Rong Tsai.
Based on the book by Du Lu Wang.
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
120 minutes.

Photo ©Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

The Stuff Movies Are Made Of

It is just simply amazing what this movie has achieved.

The list is long for the boundaries that it crosses and the gaps that it bridges. It is a critical hit, praised long before it hit America, as well as a hit among the general public, apetites whetted by overseas Jet Li movies and The Matrix for a higher class of martial arts action. As a martial arts picture, it is incredible, with fights so fluid to watch that it feels more like dance, and, yet, at the same time, it's a love story and a coming-of-age story. This allows it to be equally adored by men and women alike: men will marvel at the action, women will weep at the drama. It is an art-house movie, and its mostly word-of-mouth publicity is causing it to go mainstream. And, most incredible of all, it's a non-Hollywood, non-American motion picture that's being excellently received all over the world, a movie entirely spoken in Chinese that is being embraced by Americans as they would embrace their own summer blockbusters and winter Oscar-contenders. In fact, the harshest general criticism that I've heard about the movie has come from the Chinese!

And after all the hype, this movie really holds its own. Beautiful and elegant; marvelously shot and directed; touching, humorous, and thrilling, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the movie of the year. If you can see this in a packed theater, do it. There are scenes which finish to the applause of the audience. Like Star Wars, its scope is operatic, larger than life; it is meant to be seen as a spectacle, but there also is an underlying base built on the principles of honor and love. It truly has something for everyone.

The movie doesn't really need a background story, but it helps in the sense that it might lessen a feeling of silliness when the viewer first sees a character effortlessly fly into the air like Superman. Crouching Tiger is a wuxia story. In China, wuxia (pronounced "woo-shyah") describes tales told in a relatively mythical setting, often in an unspecified distant past. The warriors and swordsmen in wuxia often have awesome physical abilities, making them seem superhuman. One of these abilities roughly equates to the ability to jump extremely high, although it might be better described as a mastery of body lightness. Wuxia was popularized in fiction novels, and later in television dramas, often presenting these warriors in light, flowing robes, jumping up to the rooftops with ease. There were also quite a few old wuxia movies in China/Hong Kong a few decades ago, which depicted more of the adventures of these warriors. However, the fantastic nature of these kinds of martial arts movies soon gave way to more brutal and realistic fare, such as those popularized by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, as well as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal on western shores.

It was actually somewhat of a bemused surprise to many Chinese that it was Ang Lee who decided to take a stab at directing his own wuxia movie, the first in a long time. Ang Lee is better known for his family-and-relationship-oriented comedy-dramas, and he was the last person anyone could have thought to direct a slam-bang martial arts pic. Lee, however, stays true to his visions of the stories he read and loved as a child. He also infuses Crouching Tiger with his unique sense of relationship study and his trademark intelligent-woman characters.

The story begins when a warrior, named Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), has declared that he has finished his journeys and entrusts his lifelong friend and fellow-warrior, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), to give his sword, the Green Destiny, to an old friend named Sir Te (Sihung Lung) for safekeeping. Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien had always been in love with one another for most of their friendship, but their warriors' honor keeps them from taking any step in that direction. Shu Lien delivers the sword as promised, and also pays a visit to a local governor who has stopped by as a guest of Sir Te; she also meets the governor's daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), an apparently restless teenage girl who is about to be married off, and who seems to take a large interest in Shu Lien's adventurous warrior life. Before long, the Green Destiny is stolen in the night by a masked thief. Shu Lien attempts to stop the thief, and their battle is the first of many breathtaking duels.

As the story goes on, it is centered on Jen and her struggle to find a place for herself and her life. She is secretly under the tutelage of a known fugitive, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), and she longs to escape to a life of adventure like the warriors she admires, but knows that the rules of society bind her to a potentially lifeless marriage, where she would be the subservient wife. She'd rather run away with her secret love, a desert bandit named Lo (Chang Chen). And, as it turns out, she possesses skills which could make her dangerous; she is a crouching tiger, a hidden dragon, ready to strike, ready to be discovered. Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien find that out in due time, and end up having more than just a passing interest in the direction of her life.

As I mentioned, this movie has something for everyone. Its fight sequences are as lightning-quick, skillful, and exciting as those in Chinese opera. Credit Yuen Woo-ping, legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer, for bringing his wire-fighting techniques to use in great effect once again. The acting is very good and the casting is perfect. Chow Yun-fat displays confidence in his role as a battle-hardened warrior; Michelle Yeoh displays a strong dramatic turn; and Zhang Ziyi is a discovery to behold. Scenes are framed with beautiful cinematography showing the charms of an old Chinese city, the scorching landscape of a desert, and a forest-and-waterfall setting that would serve as one of the most amazing backdrops for a crucial scene. There's even a hilarious comedic section that serves as the movie's equivalent of a Western barroom brawl.

If the movie has one weakness, it may be its dialogue, or, more accurately, the delivery of the dialogue. This was the gripe that many Chinese viewers had with it: the principal actors, save Zhang Ziyi, speak native Cantonese. However, the characters are meant to speak in the Mandarin dialect, and, purportedly, Chow, Yeoh, and Chang all have pretty bad accents. Meanwhile, in America, the dialogue suffers from an unfortunate translation problem. The lines are meant to be spoken in a kind of classic way, with not so much modern slang involved. Sadly, these lines translate to such trite statements like, "I have not yet avenged my master." It seems corny, and weakens the film's impact.

I think these are criticisms easily stuffed into one's back pocket when watching this movie. After all, it's a movie that transcends dialogue. I don't think that anyone in the U.S. is going to care about bad Mandarin accents. Ultimately, Crouching Tiger delivers in nearly every department that a movie could and should deliver in. It does what a movie is supposed to do: take you away, entertain you, maybe even move you. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great example of what the movies can be all about.

Rating: 10/10

©Jeffrey Chen, Jan. 17, 2001