Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China/Taiwan/United States, 2000)
One of many things that can be said about director Ang Lee is that he's not afraid to take a chance. The Taiwanese-born director has embarked upon such diverse projects as Eat Drink Man Woman (about family relations and the clash of old and new values in modern-day Taiwan), Sense and Sensibility (based on the Jane Austen novel), The Ice Storm (a flawless look at the dark side of the '70s), and Ride With the Devil (a Civil War adventure/drama). For his latest, most ambitious outing, Lee has turned his focus to a mythical China of several hundred years ago. The critically celebrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an epic martial arts film that combines incredible action sequences with elements of romantic melodrama and superhero derring-do. As visually stunning as it is inventive, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is sure to gain an immediate following. It has a reserved slot on many critics' Top Ten lists and, if U.S. distributor Sony Pictures Classics has its way, it will make a splash both at the box office and when the Academy Award nominations are announced.
Taking place during the era of the Qing dynasty, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gives us a trio of larger-than-life characters: the great martial arts master, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), whose near-invincibility makes him the Superman of his day; the love of his life (for whom he has never openly acknowledged his feelings), female warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh); and the powerful-but-innocent Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is wandering down a path towards evil. The story hinges on Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien's attempts to retrieve the legendary sword Green Destiny, which has been stolen from its rightful owner, and the manner in which that quest places Li Mu Bai into conflict with his old adversary Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), the woman who killed his master.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is based on an early 20th century novel by Wang Du Lu, unfolds much like a comic book, with the characters and their circumstances being painted using wide brush stokes. Subtlety is not part of Lee's palette; he is going for something grand and melodramatic, and that's what he gets. His protagonists are bigger than life and their quest is the kind of epic endeavor that pits good against evil, with an innocent caught in between. Yet, despite the film's grandiose feel, there are enough intimate moments for us to get to know the characters. One of the primary elements of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the way it contrasts Shu Lien with Jen. Each is a prisoner of her lifestyle, yearning for what the other has. Shu Lien, a warrior and wanderer all her life, would like nothing more than to settle down. Jen, the pampered daughter of a powerful official, craves the freedom that she believes comes with Shu Lien's profession.
The hallmark of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is its standout action sequences, of which there are five or six (depending on how you count). All of them are eye-popping and spectacularly choreographed (by Yuen Wo-Ping, who worked on The Matrix - a connection that is immediately identifiable) with special effects being used to enhance the natural athleticism of the participants. The best of these sequences is an amazing rooftop chase that has two characters relentlessly pursuing one another from one side of Beijing to the other, using a Peter Pan-like ability to almost fly. It's beautifully filmed, perfectly composed, and thrilling from start to finish. Another segment worth mentioning is a battle in the treetops, where the opponents leap from branch to branch as they do battle. This is the kind of action I have never before seen.
Lee and cinematographer Peter Pau make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a stunning visual experience even when the action is static. From a glorious matte shot of ancient Beijing to the verdant splendor of the surrounding forest to the majesty of Wudun Mountain, the film never ceases to dazzle our eyes and arrest our attention. Tan Dun's gentle, occasionally haunting score provides the perfect musical backdrop for the story, never calling undue attention to itself.
In addition to paying careful attention to Chinese legends and metaphysical beliefs, Lee has injected many other elements into Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He presents the martial arts sequences with a degree of reverence that does not call to mind the campiness that the average viewer might associate with the genre. This is not Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan; it's something entirely different and, in its own way, more wonderful. In addition, Lee draws upon the work of other filmmakers in putting the finishing touches on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Homages to both John Ford and Akira Kurosawa are easily identifiable by anyone who has seen the work of either man.
Humor plays as important a part in the film as the romance and adventure. Lee includes secondary characters who are on hand for comic relief, and one of the battles leavens the action with laughter. The director is constantly winking at the audience, reminding viewers not to take anything too seriously - not that such an approach is likely considering the nature of the film. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is designed for what it delivers: pure entertainment and spectacular martial arts encounters.
For his leads, Lee has chosen a pair of Hong Kong cinema veterans who are capable of handling both the physical and the dramatic rigors of their roles. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh have considerable international followings, and for good reason. (After appearing in Hollywood productions like Anna and the King, Chow is gaining mainstream North American recognition. Likewise, Yeoh has "crossed over", having played an atypical Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies.) The actors live up to their reputations here, giving deep and stirring performances (note how much can be read in Yeoh's facial expressions), and they are ably supported by Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen (playing Jen's lover, Black Cloud).
Thematically, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a rich underlying foundation. It ruminates on the true nature of freedom and how everyone, regardless of their circumstances, is a prisoner of one sort or another. Of equal importance is the way it balances the timeless equation of love, honor, and sacrifice. When viewed from any perspective, be it the lofty perch of a jaded critic or the less demanding vantage point of the average movie-goer, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands out as one of the year's most complete, and exhilarating, motion picture experiences.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China/Taiwan/United States, 2000)
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei-pei
Screenplay: Wang Hui-Ling and James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung, based on the novel by Wang Du Lu
Cinematography: Peter Pau
Music: Tan Dun
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
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