Action speaks loudest in Crouching Tiger
by Gary Susman
You've never seen anything quite like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
before. If you're a lover of art-house and foreign films, you've never seen a
film of such delicacy and decorousness that also offers such heart-stopping
action sequences. And if you're a Hong Kong-movie cultist, even one accustomed
to female-driven action movies, you've never seen these conventions wedded to
such lofty-minded artistry. Even if you're a fan of Hollywood action
spectacles, you've still never seen sequences like the ones here, which
literally take flight above even such envelope-pushing fare as The
Matrix. The combination of Hong Kong-style storytelling, state-of-the-art
action, and director Ang Lee's own art-film preoccupations doesn't always mesh,
much less soar. But when it does, you'll be stunned and overwhelmed.
Lee, who's made a career of hopping among languages, cultures, and historical
periods (contemporary New York and Taipei in The Wedding Banquet and
Eat Drink Man Woman, Jane Austen's England in Sense and
Sensibility; '70s suburbia in The Ice Storm), has maintained some
constant themes in his work; generational conflict, moral education, and
especially the social and sexual strictures against which his strong-willed
female characters chafe. In last year's awkward Civil War drama Ride with
the Devil, he spent as much time in the drawing room as on the battlefield.
Crouching Tiger represents a much more successful fusion of comedy of
manners and action drama; co-writer/co-producer James Schamus's much-repeated
description of the film as "Sense and Sensibility with martial arts"
doesn't really begin to describe the achievement.
Lee has inspired some career-best work in his team of Asian legends, including
charismatic superstars Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, pioneering 1960s Hong
Kong martial-arts star Cheng Pei Pei, cinematographer Peter Pau, and fight
choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (finally recognized in America for his work on
The Matrix). Yuen sends the characters, most of them sword-wielding,
Jedi-like warriors, leaping up the sides of buildings, hopping across rooftops,
skipping like pebbles across lakes, vaulting to the tops of trees, and casually
defying gravity like some combination of Peter Pan, Gene Kelly, and Spider-Man.
But it's all done in the service of character and plot. Each fight is the
characters' way of expressing what they dare not talk about -- revenge,
arrogance, bitterness, yearning, even love. The sequences are both thrilling
and lovely, and they're likely to make any audience break out into spontaneous
Unfortunately, when the characters aren't soaring, the movie often remains
earthbound as well. The story, based on one part of a five-part novel by 1930s
writer Wang Du Lu, is a labyrinthine tale of intrigue in a mythical
19th-century China. The ostensible main characters -- Giang Hu warrior-knights
Li Mu Bai (Chow) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), take a back seat to the story of Jen
Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a governor's daughter who longs to be a Giang Hu warrior but
is engaged to marry another aristocrat. She also longs to be reunited with her
secret lover, a swashbuckling desert bandit called Dark Cloud (Chang Chen). The
MacGuffin is Mu Bai's sword, a magnificent 400-year-old weapon called "Green
Destiny"; when it's stolen, Mu Bai comes out of retirement to join his friend
Shu Lien in recovering it from the likely thief, Mu Bai's old nemesis Jade Fox
(Cheng Pei Pei). Much is made of the warrior code, the struggle between
teachers and their resentful disciples, and the battle between the good and
evil sides of the Giang Hu Force over Jen Yu's soul.
All this is enacted in an archaic Mandarin dialect that is foreign to Lee and
his mostly Cantonese-speaking cast, so it's no wonder that his stars,
especially Chow and Yeoh, seem to be holding something back. Granted, the plot
demands it; Mu Bai and Shu Lien have never acted upon their feelings for each
other out of respect for her fiancé, who died saving Mu Bai's life.
Still, the adherence to protocol isn't all that stifles these characters. Chow,
Yeoh, and especially the stunning ingénue Zhang smolder intensely but to
limited effect. They can't wait until they're leaping and clashing again, and
neither can you.
Also, an interview with Ang Lee
in Gerald Peary's Film Culture