Release: 2000, Sony Pictures Classics Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi Director: Ang Lee MPAA Rating: [PG-13] violence, sexuality Genre: Drama/Action Runtime: 120 minutes
When a nobleman's daughter (Ziyi) yearns to break away from the life that has been pre-arranged for her, she steals a mystical sword and embarks on the life of an adventurer. But two warriors (Yun Fat and Yeoh) who are dispatched to retrieve the sword catch up with her and try to convince her of the errors of her ways.
"good kung fu"
astonishing choreography and action
strong performances from the lead cast members
martial arts moves are laughably ridiculous at times
basic story is somewhat unoriginal
When going to the movies, one of the last things I want to do is read--thus, the built-in annoyance of subtitled flicks. But when you're talking about a film that is as beautifully crafted and enchanting as the Chinese import Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, reading the translation at the bottom of the screen quickly becomes effortless.
This fairy-talish epic tells the story of Jen, a young daughter of a nobleman, and her struggle to break from the traditional life that has been arranged for her. Instead of being a good housewife, she longs to be an adventurer, and her uncanny affinity for the martial arts makes her a natural candidate for the lone warrior lifestyle. Early in life, she falls under the tutelage of Jade Fox, a renegade woman who has herself shunned tradition and taught herself the secrets of the warrior by unscrupulous means. This relationship is a bad influence on Jen, and the two eventually steal a mystical sword rumored to impart invincibility to its wielder. Two warriors are immediately dispatched to retrieve the artifact: Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a legendary fighter who has grown world-weary of his chosen path; and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a woman who has lived the way of the warrior, but regrets abandoning love and family.
First and foremost, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands out because of its remarkable action sequences. "Everybody was kung fu fighting!" The martial arts moves are not only fast, furious, and frequent, but beautifully choreographed as well. It's all so fluid and artistic that it raises the genre to a new level, and many of the sequences have to be seen to be believed. The only drawback is that all of the characters pull off a leaping maneuver that makes it look like they are almost flying. While it adds to the mystical mood of the movie, it also elicits a lot of giggling from the audience. Still, the rest of the action, while Matrix-like at times and often unrealistic, is truly something to behold. In fact, the audience I watched the film with actually applauded after the first fight sequence.
Boosting the action is a story that is greatly character-driven. Li Mu Bai is an interesting character because he constantly refers to a grave realization he came to after long meditation--a sad conclusion about life's emptiness. Chow Yun Fat plays him with a magnificent blend of wisdom and sorrow. Equally compelling is Michelle Yeoh's character, a woman who has lived the independent lifestyle of her own choice, but looking back, regrets the sacrifices that were made to live that life.
Unfortunately, the development of Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien is not the primary focus. Instead, the character of Jen takes the spotlight. While Zhang Ziyi pulls off the role with understated beauty in a performance easily worthy of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Jen's story is not exactly original. I believe many U.S. viewers are willing to forgive this because Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a foreign film with a completely different atmosphere than what we're used to, but let's call a spade a spade--this story follows the Titanic formula to a tee: aristocratic girl longs for freedom, breaks tradition, finds true love on the wrong side of the tracks, then faces a bittersweet resolution. If this movie was a purely American construct, we'd hear critics bitching to no end about "unoriginal story" and "implausible special effects." I guess being a foreign art-house film goes a long way in giving a movie credibility...
While Jen's love story is a rather flimsy link in the chain, Zhang Ziyi is a joy to watch, and her constant headstrong defiance makes for both good drama and good comedy. She's so good, in fact, that I didn't even mind the unnerving echoes of Star Wars: Jade Fox and Li Mu Bai fighting to mentor Jen and her limitless potential reeked of an Obi-Wan/Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader triangle.
Despite some flaws, though, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film with far more positives than negatives. A largely unspoken affection between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shi Lien offsets Jen's Titanic romance for those looking for a love story; and spectacular action, a distinct atmosphere of otherworldliness, and a decidedly un-Hollywood ending make it a definite must-see for everyone else. Indeed, in a year when good movies were unusually few and far between, this foreign film easily stands out as one of 2000's best.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)