Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Directed by Ang Lee
Review by Matt Heffernan <email@example.com>
After achieving international fame with Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee ceased being a Chinese filmmaker. His subsequent films, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and last year's Ride With the Devil, were entirely Western. The last thing anybody expected him to do was to return to China and make the biggest martial arts film of all time. It's a far cry from Jane Austen, to say the least. Then again, nobody expected George Lucas to follow up the success of American Graffiti with Star Wars. That's exactly what has happened with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but will the world enjoy this magical adventure as much if it's in Chinese with subtitles?
Chow Yun-Fat stars, without any guns, as Master Li Mu Bai, the greatest warrior from imperial Giang Hu. He wants to give up his profession, so he sends his dear friend and female counterpart Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to Peking to give his legendary jade sword, Green Destiny, to his old mentor, Sir Te (Lung Sihung). Soon after Yu Shu Lien's arrival, the sword is stolen. The identity of the thief is a mystery, but suspicion is cast on the house of Governor Yu (Li Fazeng) of hiring the Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), a local witch, and her gang.
Master Li is called in to help get the sword back, but Yu Shu Lien has discovered the Jade Fox's thieving disciple: Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the young daughter of Governor Yu who is about to get married to another aristocrat. She would much rather be a warrior like her heroine, Yu Shu Lien, and marry a bandit she met in the West named "Dark Cloud" (Chang Chen). She has been learning the secret arts of Giang Hu from the Jade Fox, which enables her to virtually fly around and take advantage of the power of Green Destiny.
That's the basic premise for the story, but there's a lot more to it, as the sword changes hands and Jen's loyalty shifts around. It's not a very complicated story, either, but this film isn't just about telling a story. It's merely an excuse for creating brilliant images. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not your ordinary martial arts film. It doesn't even fit into the genre, just as Star Wars isn't really science fiction. What Ang Lee has created is an epic adventure that creates its own mythology, and expresses it visually instead of verbally.
The fighting scenes are what most audiences will remember. Chow, Yeoh, and Zhang jump from rooftop to rooftop, walk up walls, and even run up the slender branches of bamboo trees. This ability is never explained, and it doesn't need to be. These warriors have simply conquered gravity, and their secret was lost centuries ago. With the use of some amazing special effects, Lee creates the most beautiful violence ever captured on film. However, unlike The Matrix or The Phantom Menace, these shots don't cry out "I was made possible by computers!" It really looks like the actors are defying gravity.
Not only are the fights beautiful, but there is also a serene beauty to the film. The flashback sequence about how Jen met her bandit lover has some gorgeous vistas of Western China, and a well-acted love story between Zhang and Chang. The relationship between Chow and Yeoh is also interesting, and provides some needed emotional weight. These scenes without action create an atmosphere like Lee's previous films, and allow his style to mesh with the martial arts aspects.
As I watched this film with a Greenwich Village audience, I took note of the different reactions that people had. Some scenes provoked laughter since they didn't really know how to react to the images. Others gasped, and a few applauded. Many more were just awestruck. These people are generally jaded, and this kind of response is rare. I loved every minute of it, and as I went home, I realized that what I had just witnessed was the birth of another legendary film. I saw the Star Wars connection immediately, and this film is in that same class -- but will Middle America go for it? Sony wants to give the film a wide release, especially after the huge turnout in New York and Toronto last weekend. They might release a dubbed version, but I hope that they at least try to get the subtitled version out to the masses. I think this film could be a sensation, and make people realize that flaccid Hollywood fare like The Grinch isn't worth all the attention.
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Wo hu cang long (2000)
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings
Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan