Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
review by Dan Lybarger, 29 December 2000

Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee has become one of the world’s most acclaimed directors by defying the stereotypical expectations many westerners have about Asian filmmakers. His subtle, character-driven approach in films like The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm have allowed him to switch genres and locations with astonishing ease. All of his films, whether set in nineteenth-century England, the American Civil War and the swinging 70s in New England, are equally credible. Therefore, it’s not surprising that his martial arts adventure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon works. What is pleasantly unexpected is how effortlessly Lee’s low-key dramatics mesh with the kinetic sword battles. In most action movies, storytelling takes a backseat to hand-to-hand combat. Lee, however, manages to imbue Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with an emotional depth and sense of integrity that make the fights seems even more exciting. As a result, the gravity-defying leaps and eye-popping flying scenes are icing on the cake to an already filling desert.

Lee’s and his frequent writer James Schamus’ fingerprints are noticeable from the opening frames. When Li Mu Bau (played with regal charm by Chow Yun-Fat) returns to his home after a long period of contemplation, it’s obvious he’s had a lengthy and reciprocated crush on fellow warrior Yu Show Lien (Michele Yeoh from Tomorrow Never Dies). The two stare at each other so intently, that even though they never talk about it, they’re crazy about each other. If the stress of keeping an intense attraction repressed weren’t enough (Show Lien’s engagement to a long dead soldier prevents her from ever acting on her feelings), Li’s journey has left him more horrified than enlightened. Deciding that his experience is a bad omen, Li decides to retire and give his treasured 400-year-old sword to his friend Sir Te (Lung Shi Hung).

Li’s days of fighting are far from over. Shortly after Shu Lien presents Sir Te the sword, it’s stolen. The prime suspect is the Jade Fox (Chen Pei Pei), an outlaw who killed Li’s master and stole many of his martial arts techniques. The Jade Fox has a lethal disciple, and it doesn’t take Show Lien long to figure out that she is the local governor’s soon-to-be married daughter Jen Yu (Zhang ZiYi). Jen Yu looks small and dainty and speaks to Show Lien with a reverent tone. But she’s more than a wannabe warrior. Jen can hold her own against bandits (don’t even think of stealing her jade comb) and still has a passion for Lo (Chang Chen), a desert thief she once loved. With Jen’s considerable skill and potential for greatness, Li and Shu Lien try to lure her into using her gifts for high purposes.

Normally a quest like this might seem simplistic and even silly. Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Ku Jung (working from Wang Du Lu’s novel) imbue the tale with psychological details filmmakers of supposedly deeper genres often ignore. When Shu Lien first confronts Jen about the theft of the sword, she plays a subtle mind game with her instead of swinging her fists. Shu Lien sounds as if she’s recalling the robbery as if she is merely telling the story to a disinterested party, but she’s actually needling Jen into returning the weapon. Touches like these make the talk of warriors’ codes seem less like idle tirades and make the scenes between the battles just as compelling as the face-offs themselves. They also give the actors more of a chance to show their craft. Chow has really been underutilized in his American films, and because he looks so imposing behind a pistol in John Woo’s movies, it’s easy to forget how talented he really is.

Not that Lee shortchanges action fans. The fight scenes were coordinated by Yuen Wo-Ping, who also choreographed the stunts for The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels. The digitally-aided flight scenes are a marvel in themselves, but one of the things that really makes the duels fascinating is that the actors even have their own fighting styles. Chow moves with a cool, but elegant efficiency, while Cheng’s movements are wild and sloppy. As with the tunes in musicals, the fight scenes do more than dazzle. They actually give us information about the characters and make the battles far more compelling.

Lee and his collaborators have set a formidable standard that other action filmmakers should follow. While many adrenaline-driven movies have subordinated dramatics to eye candy, some recent flicks like the remake of Get Carter (with its clumsy photography and inept editing) can’t even seem to get the explosions right. By providing his audiences with the brain, heart and dazzle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee reminds audiences of the joy they’ve been missing.

Directed by:
Ang Lee

Yun-Fat Chow Michelle Yeoh Ziyi Zhang Chen Chang Sihung Lung Pei-pei Cheng Fazeng Li Xian Gao Yan Hai Deming Wang Li Li Su Ying Huang Jin Ting Zhang

Written by:
Du Lu Wang
Hui-Ling Wang





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