Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
starring: Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat & Zhang Zi Yi
Jan 30, 2001
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great film. That's a given. However, if you think you want to see it because you really loved "The Matrix," you need to read this review.
In Chinese, the statement Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is used to refer to a place where danger lies just beneath a seemingly normal, serene exterior, like Berlin was during the cold war, with the KGB and the CIA hiding behind every corner. In Ang Lee's new film by the same name, the place referred to is the expansive residence of an aging government official in Beijing who inherits a sword called Green Destiny, the property of the legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), who hopes that giving up the sword will let him quit his all-consuming quest to avenge his master, slain by a villain known as Jade Fox.
Yu Shu Lian (Michelle Yeoh) is a warrior and the head of a merchant family that transports the Green Destiny to Beijing. She and Li Mu Bai also happen to be in love.
At the compound, Yu Shu Lian meets Jen Yu (Zhang Zi Yi), the daughter of a visiting governor. The governor and his family are in Beijing for Jen Yu's arranged marriage. Jen Yu, however, wishes to leave behind the life her father has chosen for her and become a warrior like Shu Lian. Soon we learn that Jen Yu isn't as sheltered as she would have everyone believe. Soon Yu Shu Lian, Li Mu Bai, and many others become involved in her secret life.
The plot twists and turns and occasionally confuses, but Ang Lee's patient story-telling helps put everything into place in the end. The story is a standard martial arts legend, this one adapted from the now-famous novel by Wang Du Lu. Martial arts legends and martial arts movies must follow several conventions. Ang Lee's film is no different. One convention is that great martial arts warriors can fly. However, unlike what most people might expect from a martial arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon deeply develops its characters. The resulting emotional element of the film is what makes it so compelling.
The martial arts choreography by Yuen Wo-Ping is spectacular, but the great martial arts legends movies from directors/choreographers King Wang and Tsui Hark, to name only two, are equally or more spectacular. What makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon so beautiful to watch is that Ang Lee brings a different perspective to the genre. He's an artsier film maker and, as a result, slows down the usually frantic pacing of most martial arts films. One way he accomplishes this is through the beautiful score by Chinese composer Tan Dun, which soothes the viewer throughout the movie.
Now that that's out of the way, let me say more about this film and "The Matrix." On the night Michelle Yeoh appeared on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno said, "If you liked 'The Matrix,' you'll enjoy this movie." I thought, why? Comparing "The Matrix" and this movie is like comparing "Schindler's List" with "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Just because Yuen Wo-Ping choreographed both films does not mean they have anything in common other than characters in it use kung fu. Furthermore, comparing Keanu Reeves' kung fu with Michelle Yeoh's kung fu is like comparing my dance technique with Fred Astaire's. If I see one more review use "The Matrix" as a reference for people to understand what kind of film they'll see (or worse, as a selling point) in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," I will be forced to buy air time on the national networks and read this review to the nation.
When I saw the film it was clear that most of the people in the theatre were there to see an Ang Lee film, not a Chinese film or a martial arts film or anything else. I heard two college professor women in their 50's behind me talk about "Ice Storm" and "Sense and Sensibility," so I figured they would be in for a surprise. As the film progressed, I heard reactions from them and lots of other people that betrayed genuine surprise at elements of the film. I heard what could almost be described as scoffing from much of the audience when the combat scenes took to the rooftops or the treetops. Come on, I thought, any student of kung fu (or at least kung fu movies) knows that real masters can fly. Well, who expects people to fly in an Ang Lee film?
So my final analysis is this: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a beautiful martial arts film that can be enjoyed by any film enthusiast. However, Ang Lee has not invented (or even reinvented) the genre with this film. No, if you believe most American reviewers, that distinction goes to the Wachowski brothers for the Matrix. However, hopefully he has raised the bar for martial arts movie makers and, more than anything else, he may help bring more Chinese cinema to these shores.