by Kai Nealis“A sword by itself rules nothing. It only comes alive in skilled hands,” says Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), in the 2000 martial arts blockbuster, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In the same way, the brilliance of this film lies not only in its complex, fulfilling narrative and historic technical achievements, but also very much in the virtuosity and prowess of Ang Lee’s direction of the actors. That’s not even mentioning the quintessential martial arts dramatics of expert stunt choreographer Yuen Wo Ping. It is in the skilled hands of these master film warriors that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes alive.
As the only martial arts film to have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the highest grossing foreign language film in United States history, this film famously introduced the wuxia genre to Western audiences at just the right time. Its fusion of the ancient China-based swordsman genre, intertwined love stories, and a refreshing representation of superhuman combat was the perfect storm for the uninitiated non-Chinese moviegoers. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee skillfully brought together classic Hong Kong martial arts and archetypal western romance. While Chinese entertainment seekers weren’t overly fond of this synthesis of cinematic cultures, it was an enormous crossover success almost everywhere outside of China. This failure to entice Chinese moviegoers might very well be due to the unfamiliar, explicit elements of female agency that are expressed by the characters Jen Yu, Jade Fox and Yu Shu Lien. The film proudly stands alone as a wuxia epic in which female characters not only fight, but also dominate the males. Each having been individually suppressed, they contest male opposition as never before seen in such a typically male-dominated genre.
Taking place during the Qing dynasty in the late 19th Century, the film entangles two distinguished warriors as they each track the stolen Green Destiny sword from their shared nemesis, Jade Fox. The story also follows a young nobleman’s daughter as she struggles to find truth amidst an arranged marriage and conflicting romantic desires. Part dramatic thriller, part romantic coming-of-age narrative, the warriors voyage across China and gradually come to face their long repressed feelings for one another. The charismatic performances of Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat (acting in his first martial arts film), are unmatched in any wuxia film to date. The two are in a perpetual state of quietly coming close to one another and contradictorily pushing each other away. Contrasting this suppressed love story is the fierce, brash romance between Jen (Zhang Ziyi) and Lo (Chang Chen). The chemistry between these two is less emotionally complex than that of Yu and Master Li, but it is equally gripping. Within both couples, there is a fundamental struggle in searching for love without emotional obstruction. This lies at the heart of the passionate chronicle penned by screenwriters Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai.
All together, the suitably intricate and romantic plot is matched by mystery as well as strange and magical martial arts combat. This film certainly spends time on emotions, but it does not disappoint in the realm of outrageous, Hong Kong mega-fights. What garnered the film its critical and commercial success was most likely this unique combination of both poignant emotional depth and energetic drive. Like any great action film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon unfolds much like a first-rate comic book. Complex, intelligent characters meet genuine aesthetic and stylistic beauty. With this film, Lee presents a high-powered narrative and the experience lies in stunning visual representation as well as adept performances by its actors.The stunt coordination in the film should truly only be categorized as choreography, as the eight extended fight sequences are both visually and practically alluring. These martial arts arrangements are crafted with such grace and elegant sophistication that viewers easily find themselves disregarding the remarkable supernaturalism of the airborne characters. Such intricate and advanced wirework has yet to be matched in filmmaking to this day. The brilliance of this spectacle of flying martial arts warriors also lies in the way it is gradually introduced. The warriors’ soaring acrobatics are never explicitly addressed and they subtly increase in prevalence so as to ease viewers into its presence.
During these fight sequences, Yuen and cinematographer Peter Pau move characters expertly through the boundaries of the frame in every direction — in effect, generating astounding breadth of spatial progression. The defining trait of the film’s visual grandeur is this extended sense of dimension and movement. Camera placement and the sound mix of Tan Dun’s rhythmic score with sound effects also create the exemplary construction of space in these scenes. Uncharacteristic of a wuxia film, physical strikes are downplayed in order to leave room for the energetic soundtrack as well.
In accordance with the genre, however, and with Lee having drawn influence from seminal Chinese director King Hu, the dialogue of this film is much more traditionally prevalent than in many modern martial arts films. While many of the more talky scenes are melodramatic on the surface, they serve a much more significant purpose in the broader scheme of modern Chinese filmmaking. The slow pace of the editing is evocative of a very rare synthesis of historic Chinese cinema homage and modern romance movie tropes of the Western world. For instance, the first action sequence begins 15 minutes after the start of the film (which is unheard of in many action films). In these 15 minutes, Lee sets the stage for his goals of expressing intimate physical vulnerability in his characters and employing painterly cinematography. The tension builds in these slower scenes to a point of no return before physical conflict breaks out and Lee’s team of veteran stunt technicians take the helm. But even in action sequences, this intimacy is never lost — whether this is through the limited use of digital effects or in the rare use of stunt doubles.
In one word, this film is sexy. Very rarely in a singular moviegoing experience does one find such emotional force and passionate character dynamics in addition to genuinely incredible action sequences. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is also a powerful and innovative example of counterflow, which defies the restrictive creative thresholds put on the film industry by Hollywood. Although some of its ancient Chinese cultural legitimacy may have been lost in its many translations, the movie’s globalized sensibilities still counteract the completely westernized world film market. In essence, not only is this film exciting and expressive — it has distinctively challenged the typical Hollywood attitude on foreign filmmaking.
4.5 out of 5 stars