Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Review
By Joe Lozito
Director Ang Lee, better known for introspective, down-to-earth dramas like "The Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility", has said that he grew up with a love for martial arts films. That love comes through in every frame of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
." The Kung Fu warriors who populate the film have studied their craft at the mysterious Wupan temple where apparently they learned how to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Mr. Lee creates a world which is instantly timeless and mystical, so there is no problem suspending disbelief for the dazzling fight scenes which populate the film.
The combat was choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, best known for the gravity-defying fights in "The Matrix". If "Crouching Tiger" gives us a sneak preview of what the Matrix sequels are going to look like, then we're in for a mind-blowing treat. The "Hidden Dragon" of the title is a symbol of the wires that are used for these fights, but just as often, the combat is tied to the ground and the martial arts on display is equally amazing. Wires are a staple of the "Kung Fu Theater" era, but the trick has always been to use them well. Mr. Yuen is a veteran of this style and by working in conjunction with Mr. Lee, they have created fights that are more akin to ballet than combat.
All the elements that define the martial arts genre are in place: The operatic themes of loyalty, honor and revenge; masters taking apprentices, who eventually challenge the masters; and of course destiny. Like "Unforgiven", the film is self-referential. The governor's young daughter (the beautiful and dangerous Zhang ZiYi) dreams of being a warrior and travelling the world "freely", she romanticizes the warriors she's read about in books. She is told, "Never bathing, sleeping in flea-infested beds, do your books mention that?"
In fact, the characters in the film are constantly trying to teach and learn from each other. Even when they fight, they do it not to kill each other, but to teach each other lessons. Each character has his or her own fighting style and when they spar, they do so not at random, but with a definite purpose. Mr. Lee has always populated his films with strong female characters and "Crouching Tiger" is no different. Most of the fight scenes are led by women.
Martial arts films typically have a structure like a Hollywood musical, substituting the fights for musical numbers. Unfortunately, there has rarely been a martial arts film with a plot worth paying attention to. Until now, of course. Working from a five-volume novel by Du Lu Wang, Mr. Lee creates a tale of destiny, character and unrequited love that feels like the old epic Westerns of the 60s.
Hong Kong superstars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh have a love story in the film which rivals "Remains of the Day" for sheer repression. Mr. Chow has always been a steely presence on screen but his recent forays into American films have been poor copies of his John Woo glory days. In "Crouching Tiger", happily back using his native language, he is the epitome of honor and strength. Ms. Yeoh, always a sparkling presence in any film, gives an incredibly restrained and beautiful performance as an older generation of female warrior, who has given up "the duties of a woman" to fight for peace. Her relationship with Mr. Chow is vivid and wonderfully paced.
There is also backstory-galore as we find out what makes Ms. Zhang's character so rebellious. Mr. Lee may follow this plot thread a little too far, but never at the expense of the film's style. In fact, it helps to add another level of character and humor to the film.
There has never been a martial arts film like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". For that reason alone - the boundary-bending style of the film - it deserves a place among genre-defining epics such as "Unforgiven", "The Godfather" and "Spartacus". I don't know why it has taken so long for this genre to come into its own - maybe too many Bruce Lee knockoffs and bad dubbing have poisoned its memory - but whatever the reason, a martial arts film has finally been given a beautiful, elegant and classic treatment.