Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
As I begin this, it’s been less than an hour since I stepped out of the theater after watching Ang Lee’s Martial Arts epic, and I must say, it’s difficult to really formulate a definitive opinion on the film; the last notable time that happened was with “Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace” in May of 1999; that film went to on be- and still remains- my favorite film of 1999 (high praise given the critical (and audience) indifference about the film, and the slew of groundbreaking films released that year), with my opinions on “Episode I” unchanged after 17 times seeing it in theaters and a few viewings on video.
Is “Crouching Tiger” my favorite film of 2000? No, but it is assuredly in the top 10, almost bordering on the top 5. I will say that it glided into my 10 Best list- to be sent at the end of the month- much in the way the actors in this film glide through the action.
So what did I like about the film? Here’s a list:
1) The action. Choreographed by the same guy who did “The Matrix” (which by the way looks about as exciting as watching paint dry compared to this), Lee (who’s best known for the Oscar-nominated “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Ice Storm” here in the US) stages the scenes with mind-boggling brilliance, with ace editing and fluid cinematography capturing the scenes with eye-popping clarity. You know how with a lot of movie critics say “You’ve never seen anything like this before.”? With this film, that’s really the case. Oh, and by the way- every scene was done using wires; no CGI-effects in site. (FYI- If you liked the fights in “The Matrix” and the light saber duels in “Phantom Menace,” you’ll be blown away here.)
2) The music. Listed as the best of 2000 in my first “year end” email, Tan Dun’s score (with haunting Yo-Yo Ma solos) still holds the title after hearing it with the film. It’s a brilliant companion to the film.
3) The performances. Hong Kong cinema legends Chow Yun-Fat (John Woo’s classic Hong Kong films) and Michelle Yeoh (Jackie Chan’s “Supercop,” “Tomorrow Never Dies”) are not mere moviestars, they’re genuine talents with the charisma and emotional range to carry the simple story along, even if it needs to be read (yup, it’s in Mandarin w/ subtitles). In a just world, Zhang Ziyi- as a soon-to-be-married daughter of a politician- would receive an Oscar nomination; her character is the ignition to this vehicle, setting the plot in motion and keeping it that way until the haunting finale. She was 19 when filming took place; she displays the skill and depth of a veteran.
*(Before we continue, just a shout out to the artists responsible for the recreation of 19th Century China. Though director Lee has stated the place depicted in his film “probably never existed except in my boyhood fantasies,” the period detail is vivid and astonishing.)
5) The script. Written by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling, and Tsai Kuo Jung- based on a novel by Wang Du Lu- the script tells a story of loyalty, love, and betrayal as a mystical sword called the Green Destiny moves from good hands to evil hands as Chow and Michelle’s warriors battle Ziyi’s character and her mentor- Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), whom murdered Chow’s master. The fact that this plot and TWO love stories- the unspoken one between Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lein, the more obvious one between Ziyi’s Jen and Chang Chen’s Lo- come through with the same clarity and depth is a credit to the writing talent enlisted for the film. It’s an intelligent, literate, and haunting story that translates quite well into subtitles and is told at a brisk pace by Lee. And even though Chow is a macho presence in Woo’s films, the most vividly etched characters here are the female ones, all brought to vibrant life by Yeoh, Ziyi, and others. In other words, it’s kind-of a Chinese “Star Wars” with the feminist strength of “Sense and Sensibility,” only much better and more compelling than that meek, unjust description indicates.
6) The storytelling. This same weekend in 1999, Terrence Malick’s adaptation of “The Thin Red Line” hit wide release to drastically mixed audience response. His goal was to create a lyrical tone poem of war through striking cinematography of a land both serene and ravaged by war and existential voiceover; only the cinematography (by “Braveheart’s” John Toll)- combined with Hans Zimmer’s minimalist score- worked in achieving that poetic feel- the voiceover became grating shortly after the film started. The grace in Lee’s direction in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”- with Peter Pau’s dazzling camerawork- lends me to make the same conclusion about his homage to the Martial Arts films he grew up with, especially during an ethereal sword fight with the characters soaring from the tops of one bamboo tree to another while taking aim at each other in mid-flight. The Zen-like sequence- while not viscerally exciting- is nonetheless a wonder to behold, with Tan Dun’s scoring of the sequence echoing the poetic beauty of the scene in his soft, subtly exciting approach. This is storytelling at its best- “Crouching Tiger”
grips you from the opening scene and leaves you spellbound right up until the “leap of faith” that closes the film.
Now that I’ve finished my “analysis” of the film, it’s occurred to me that- while both are very different films- the reasons for my praise of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are very similar to the reasons I liked “The Phantom Menace,” only from a quality standpoint, this is a better film; I still have some quarrels with some of “Episode I’s” dialogue. Finally, the last reason I like- no, love- “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has to be because it transported me- again, like “Phantom Menace,” not to mention several other films- to a new time and place for two hours and made me care about what was happening onscreen in ways that transcend language and verbal communication and engages me in an experience that’s unforgettable. To quote- yet again- my favorite film critic, Peter Travers of “Rolling Stone,” Ang Lee has made the movie event of the year.