|Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon|
|DVD Martial Arts|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 05 June 2001|
Although, curiously, it seems to go unsaid on the disappointing commentary track (Lee and his usual collaborator, writer James Schamus), when the movie was in production, Lee said that his impetus in making it was his life-long love of the martial arts movies of Hong Kong and mainland China. He wanted to do a film of that nature, hitting all the traditional marks, even deliberately including clichés, but to expand it somewhat to appeal to Western tastes, and to work on a large scale.
In this, he more than succeeded; 'Crouching Tiger' may turn out to be the largest-grossing foreign-language movie ever released in the United States. In that commentary track, he points out one aspect that probably went by Western audiences, but which is integral to the story not just of this movie, but of this genre. Martial arts are learned, and stories very often center on the relationship between a master and a pupil. It is important that the pupil never learn everything the master has to teach; the master often holds back a hidden bit of knowledge.
In 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' there are two central relationships of this nature, both unsuccessful. Disguised as her servant, the evil thief Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) has taught many of the secrets of Wudan, a style of martial arts, to her beautiful charge, Jen (Zhang Ziyi). But as the plot unfolds, Jade Fox learns, to her horror, that her pupil has learned more than she knows herself, a violation of the ethics of martial arts.
Furthermore, the serene but sorrowful Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a complete master of Wudan (an inner-directed martial arts, as opposed to the outer-directed Shaolin style), wants to instruct the already-brilliant Jen in the innermost secrets of his craft. But her arrogance and her wild love for Lo (Chang Chen), a bandit chief, lead her to reject his offers, leading to tragedy for all.
This is what lies behind the plot, which begins when Li Mu Bai delivers The Green Destiny, a perfectly-made sword, to classicist Sir Te (Lung Sihung) in the Beijing of 300 years ago. He entrusts it to Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), herself a skilled martial artist; they are in love with one another, but she was once engaged to his close friend (brother in arms), who died in battle, and now tradition forbids them to do anything about their love.
The two leading characters, very unusually for a martial arts action movie, are the women, Shu Lien and Jen; both are tortured by love they cannot express, but the older woman is more in control of her feelings and her actions. The movie is partly a struggle by her and Li Mu Bai to rescue Jen from her own desires and hot-headedness.
The theft of the sword and Jen's passion for Lo, as well as the efforts by Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien to turn her around drive not just the story but the stunning, witty and awesomely beautiful action scenes around which the movie is built. It was these action scenes that attracted Americans, few of whom had seen anything like this stuff. Furthermore, even Asian audiences had rarely seen this kind of sequence photographed so lusciously, or with Western-style effects techniques so thoroughly erasing the wires holding everyone up.
The action choreographer was the great Yuen Wo Ping. Since the movie was primarily aimed at Western audiences, Lee carefully eases us into the fabulous martial arts scenes; when, in disguise, Jen steals The Green Destiny, at first she leaps about relatively realistically. But her leaps get longer, then higher, until, pursued by the equally-lightfooted Shu Lien, she's virtually flying over the tiled roofs of Beijing.
This scene and the next two are thrilling, full of wonder for Western audiences as fighting figures zoom past one another twelve feet off the ground, or effortlessly dance down the side of a wall. The next fight is mostly between supporting players -- this is where we learn just who Jade Fox really is (although a cheeky shot earlier essentially reveals it) -- until Jen and Li Mu Bai show up. They have a confrontation the next night, too. All these, however fanciful and fantastic, are straight-forward and serious.
So is the final confrontation between Li Mu Bai and Jen -- this is the one that really put credibility to the test: the battle in the upper reaches of the bamboo forest. It won us over despite being more unlikely than anything else in the movie (or in the Chinese-influenced 'The Matrix') because of the exuberance of Lee's direction, the green, leafy beauty of the bamboo and the contrasting, elegiac mood of the music.
In terms of sheer spectacle of action, however, the hilarious, over-the-top fight in the restaurant is the movie's prize. Disguised as a young man and on her way to rejoin Lo, she hopes, Jen's feisty nature brings her into conflict with other patrons of a restaurant. It's a classic, comic Hong Kong/Chinese action-movie sequence: practitioners of specific, sometimes silly, martial arts skills are swiftly and spectacularly put in their places by the nimble, graceful and very boastful young hero -- or in this case, heroine. "I am the invincible sword goddess!" she cries as she lays waste to all and everything around her.
Much of the tradition and background of the story went by most Americans, so the occasional remarks about this on Lee's commentary track are most useful. However, he and James Schamus are simply too comfortable with one another; Schamus has written most of Lee's movies, including his first in 1992, and they're clearly old friends. They keep losing track of the fact that they're supposed to be providing useful information, and simply have fun, or even fall silent. There are nuggets here and there, but things probably would have worked better if there had been a moderator.
In terms of sound, the movie and the disc are as spectacular as the action scenes. Hong Kong movies traditionally tend to provide too much sound in the battles, with screams and grunts, and especially the highly unrealistic sounds of blows being struck. (They sound like someone whapping a two-by-four with a bamboo rod -- which may in fact be how the sounds are produced.) Lee opts for relatively realistic sounds, but the dubbing is precise, the sounds are highly evocative and even beautiful, as in the fight that introduces Jade Fox: the clash of steel, the sound of chains -- crisp, clean and exciting. Equally exciting, in a completely different way, is that astonishing battle in the bamboo grove: it's mostly just the sounds of the bamboo swaying in the wind, with an occasional understated clang of steel on steel.
Peter Pau's widescreen photography is exquisitely beautiful in virtually every shot; his compositions are eccentric but not blatant, and his use of color ranges from naturalistic to painterly, always precisely correct. Tan Dun's score is wistful, elegiac and melodic; mostly the combat scenes are sort of counter-scored -- the music isn't what you'd expect -- but occasionally drums are used by themselves to exciting effect.
The cast is excellent; it's hard to believe that this is Chow Yun-Fat's first martial arts movie -- ordinarily he's equipped with at least two .45s. But he's to the manner born, virile but gentle, strong but protective. Michelle Yeoh has rarely had the chance to act as much as she does here; ordinarily she's kicking people in the ear. Her strong, unusual features are very sensitive, and she's an excellent match for both Chow and the amazing, beautiful and intense Zhang Ziyi as Jen. Her performance is delicate, powerful, graceful, naive, sophisticated, passionate, comic, dramatic -- the role required an incredible range from this young actress, and she met its challenges every step of the way.
The movie is flawed in terms of pacing; there are too many scenes of Yeoh and Chow gazing woefully into one another's eyes, while we don't see enough of the romance between Jen and Lo. The issues are not always clear to Westerners; we are asked to take too much on faith. It's as physically beautiful a movie as has been released in the last 20 years, the martial arts scenes are dazzling and exciting, and the whole enterprise -- from a novel by Wang Du Lu and a script by Schamus, Wang Hui-Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung -- was very much worth doing. It's very good, but it is not great.