Check your preconceptions at the door. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is like no film you’ve ever seen.
Yes, there are dazzling displays of martial-arts prowess, but this is not a martial-arts film, at least not in the usual sense. There is effortless-looking, gravity-defying stuntwork, but any resemblance to The Matrix is almost entirely superficial and irrelevant (the one real point of contact is Yuen Wo-Ping, who choreographed both films). It was directed by Taiwanese-born filmmaker Ang Lee, but a cursory look at his résumé — Sense and Sensibility (1995), a Jane Austen comedy of manners; The Ice Storm, a dark look at disordered relationships in 1970s America; Ride With the Devil, a Civil War tale — reveals little beyond the fact that the director doesn’t like to repeat himself.
The story is said to be set in 19th-century China, but its roots are older, reaching for a mythic age of larger-than-life heroes and superhuman derring-do. Heroes with paranormal abilities were also a theme of the recent Unbreakable; but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has what was lacking in Unbreakable: a sense of wonder, of exhilaration, of mystery and beauty and hope.
Actually, the closest cinematic parallel to Crouching Tiger’s mystical Wudan Mountain warrior-heroes, with their ability to transcend physical limitations, may be the Jedi knights of the Star Wars mythology. But Crouching Tiger is unfiltered by space-opera trappings and "Force" mumbo-jumbo; it’s an icy sip straight from the spring that far downstream feeds into George Lucas’ fantasies. Martial-arts mysticism provides part of the inspiration here, but the film also offers a poignant critique of Eastern world-denying philosophy, ultimately embracing a gently romantic humanism that puts love before detachment or enlightenment (for more on this, see my article "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Meaning").
In any case, the attractiveness of the idea of supernatural heroes is not dependent upon any particular worldview; stories about such heroes appeal to basic human instincts and affections, on several levels. Imaginatively, they suggest the truth that there is justice beyond ordinary human justice; they present us with an appealing picture of supernatural agents in our midst who — like angels — watch over us and protect us; and they offer a vision of human nature elevated and empowered beyond our current mortal frailty; evoking, after a fashion, what St. Thomas calls the "agility" of the resurrected and glorified body.
This particular story is based upon one of a series of popular pre-WWII pulp novels that draws upon the venerable Chinese storytelling tradition of Wuxia fiction. The Wuxia is a type of Chinese folk hero, a wandering warrior who — not unlike the Western cowboy hero — lives apart from ordinary society, above the law, bringing justice according to the rules of his own world, the Giang Hu world as it is known in Wuxia lore.
Ang Lee has described the film as "a kind of a dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan." Lee’s fantasies may have been informed by the kung-fu movies of his youth, but he has crafted them into something richer, more satisfying, and ultimately more fun, a world of dream logic a bit like a fairy tale. Where in an ordinary narrative a man who behaves badly might be called a "beast," in a fairy tale he may well be turned into a real one. In Crouching Tiger, likewise, psychological or spiritual realities are given outward visible shape: characters are elevated by inner tranquility or propelled by inner turmoil into supernatural action; the seeking soul wanders in the desert while the self-possessed hero is at ease in the lushness of the forest; and the true heart entrusts itself to the divine by making a literal leap of faith.
Stylistically, Crouching Tiger is a blend of Eastern action and Western psychological drama, with as much attention being given to human emotions and foibles as to traditional themes of honor and loyalty. At times, to Western sensibilities, the storytelling may seem elliptical or obscure, as when the plot comes to an unexpected halt for an extended flashback, or when motivations seem unclear. But sensitive viewers will be carried along by the film’s strong imaginative logic and thematic unity.
They will also enjoy just plain looking at the gorgeous images on the screen. Photographed all over China, Crouching Tiger is replete with beautiful architecture and stunning landscapes. The bravura stuntwork and martial-arts scenes combine the dazzling appeal of gymnastics and ice skating and ballet (the kind where the dancers float right off the stage) all rolled together; and Ang Lee brings an auteur’s eye to photographing them, emphasizing grace and rhythm and beauty (witness the overhead shots of bodies whirling in unison) over mere confrontation or even skill. Standout scenes include a breathtaking chase over rooftops and a stunning duel in the treetops of a bamboo forest. Incredibly, the stunts were done with simple wire work; computer trickery was not used, except to remove the wires. Possibly as a result, there is a certain purity to the result; the effects are less polished than the flawlessly constructed illusions of The Matrix, but they are somehow more "real."
An all-Asian cast creates an array of credible and moving characters: Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat (Anna and the King) is masterful and authoritative as invincible Li Mu Bai, a Wudan warrior who wants to relinquish the 400-year-old mystical sword "Green Destiny", along with the weight of a lifetime of heroic duty the sword represents. Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies, Supercop) gives a strong performance as Li Mu Bai’s longtime friend and fellow adventurer Yu Shu Lien, who has feelings for Li (and he for her), but like Li has suppressed them to pursue a Giang Hu lifestyle.
Twenty-year-old Zhang Ziyi, here in her second film, is fiercely charismatic as Jen, a beautiful young woman who leads a double life; and Chen Chang is every bit her equal as Lo, aka "Black Cloud", a flamboyant young bandit who embodies the freedom Jen longs for but doesn’t know how to pursue. Rounding out the cast is aging female kung-fu star Cheng Pei-pei as the villainous assassin "Jade Fox", Li Mu Bai’s archenemy and the murderer of his master.
Somewhat mischievously, Ang Lee has described Crouching Tiger as "Sense and Sensibility with martial arts." Like the Jane Austen story, Crouching Tiger is a meditation on passion and prudence, emotion and reason, freedom and duty. Although the name of the film refers primarily to the young lovers Lo and Jen (whose names in the original Mandarin mean something like "little tiger" and "delicate dragon", respectively), Ang Lee has also given it a wider sense: Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh are the "crouching tigers" whose restraint and discipline represent the sober "sense" of responsibility and obligation; Zhang Ziyi and Chen Chang are the "hidden dragons" whose reckless spirits bespeak the quivering "sensibility" of intemperate youth. It’s worth noting, too, that before the film is over the disciplined "tigers" must confront the dragonlike passion in their own hearts, while the wild "dragons" must learn the need of tigerlike restraint and discipline.
This is a firebrand of a movie, bold, dramatic, and haunting. To my mind, it’s the best movie I’ve seen all year.
In the end, though, it turns out that the House of Flying Daggers is something the film doesn’t actually care about that much. So much is this the case, in fact, that the last time we hear tell of them, the warriors called the Flying Daggers are about to get into this huge climactic battle with the enemy soldiers, whom we see advancing slowly into the bamboo forest where the Flying Daggers are hiding… at which point the story cuts to another plot thread, never to return.
The story is pure Hong Kong melodrama, set at the dawn of the Chinese Imperial Era in the third century BC. … Yet there’s nothing even marginally conventional about Hero’s overpowering visual splendor, its effulgent riot of color and texture, its overwhelming spectacle of scale.
What is it about this film that’s pulling in ordinarily subtitle-phobic U.S. audiences and eliciting cheers and applause from jaded American critics and festival audiences, yet leaves the kung-fu fans of the East cold? Is this a good martial-arts movie, or not?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.