Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON

7/10

(Wo Hu Cang Long)
US/China/Taiwan 2000
dir Ang Lee
scr Lee, James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai (based on novels by Du Lu Wang)
cin Peter Pau
stars Chow Yun-Fat, Zhang Ziyi , Michelle Yeoh
120 minutes

Crouching Tiger contains some of the most breathtaking and poetic sequences ever filmed – but they come at a price. The problem is that the down-time between them feels very down indeed, and while the movie is often a joy to watch, it can also feel like a bit of a chore – the need to please both eastern and western audiences producing a slightly disjointed hybrid . In retrospect, however, you forget these dull spots and remember Crouching Tiger as an admirably daring, technically remarkable feat of sustained brilliance that easily dwarfs Hollywood’s version of the ‘action’ movie.

Adapted from a five-novel sequence, Crouching Tiger is a new kind of historical epic, set in an unrecognisably alien world: 19th century China, a feudal state devoid of any western contact or influence. Old ways prevail, warrior codes represented by Bai (Chow) and Lien (Yeoh), veteran battlers trained in the balletic martial arts of Wudan. The action starts with Bai retiring from combat to concentrate on religious meditation. With no further use for his magical sword, the Green Destiny, he offers it as a gift to the venerable Sir Te, only for the weapon to be almost immediately stolen. Suspicion falls on young aristocrat Jen (Zhang), who isn’t quite as dainty as she appears…

Crouching Tiger delights in wrongfooting its audiences’ expectations, with Chow and Yeoh becoming relatively peripheral figures as Zhang takes centre stage. Possessed of almost supernatural physical skills, Jen is balanced between good and evil, personified by Bai and his enemy, a veteran female criminal named Jade Fox. The idea of a young warrior hovering between good and bad masters isn’t a million miles away from Star Wars, but with a resonant depth George Lucas can barely dream of.

The plot of Crouching Tiger is self-consciously epic, sweeping across the whole of China’s vast landscapes, from huge cities to deserts, forests, lakeland, though the focus on Jen, her bandit lover Lo (Chang Chen), Bai and Lien ensures the scale never overwhelms the human players in the tale. As with Ang Lee’s Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, the emphasis is strongly tilted towards the female participants, with the males relegated to onlookers during many of the astonishing battle sequences.

And it’s during these one-on-one encounters that Crouching Tiger really takes off – and the characters literally do leave the ground, as Matrix-style technology allows participants to spin in the air, skip with impossible agility over rooftops and the surfaces of lakes, bounce against walls and, in the most remarkable of the numerous set-pieces, jump from branch to branch in a dense, green forest as they exchange blows. Lee’s stroke of genius is to accompany these passages with subtle, restrained music – mainly Yo-Yo Ma’s cello – which, during the forest sequence, blends with the rustle of leaves and the whistling of the wind, adding a poetic aura to the stupendous images. Everything comes together – it’s magic, it’s why cinema was invented.

by Neil Young