"Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" "What You Should See, But Probably Haven't" - by Andrew Llewellyn (New Zealand)

From the Web 1.0 days I bring you The Forum. To preserve them for posterity as Geocities can no longer be found but also it's fun to re-read some of them.

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23rd February, 2001

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

(China/Taiwan/US 2000)

Directed by Ang Lee
With: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei Pei

Running Length: 2 Hrs.

Best to get a simple truth out in the open straight away: Hong Kong actor, Chow Yun Fat is as close to God as you're likely to get, even on a bad hair day. If you've never heard of him - never mind, billions of Asians have.

Before we get onto the subject of today's lecture, let me recommend some Chow primers (much as I'd recommend viewing the entire Sergio Leone back catalogue of Spaghetti Westerns, including the ones without Clint Eastwood, if I were to talk about the mighty Unforgiven. Which is on the cards for the near future).

I digress.... Check out these John Woo directed/Chow starring flicks: The Killer (starts out over the top, then blasts through the roof - it's reputed to have the highest body count in the history of world cinema); Bullet in the Head; A Better Tomorrow (don't be fooled by the mushy title - that's a better tomorrow after loads of people get gunned down in slo-mo); and Hard Boiled (the best of the lot IMHO). These are all subtitled. If you can't handle that (ya pussies - oh, and my sincere thanks to the writers of The Sopranos for mainstreaming this evocative term), then there are a couple of English language options in which to check out the Cool One: Replacement Killers (John Woo knockoff by someone else - but it's pretty good - a slo-mo bullet-fest featuring not just Chow, but a short-skirted Mira Sorvino toting a really big gun - it doesn't get much better than this folks); and Anna and the King. Warning: as Sesame Street used to say, one of these things is not like the others - can you guess which one? But hey, as proof of his god-like status, he gets to snog Jodie Foster, which puts him in a pretty exclusive club - for
someone of the male persuasion, anyway.

So anyway, on to the main event... Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I can reasonably confidently say you've never seen anything like this. Someone else called it Sense & Sensibility with a body count, and that's pretty close to the mark. It'd be easy to dismiss it as a chop-socky, no brainer - if you hadn't seen it. But in truth, it's equal parts martial arts extravaganza and heart-rending love story (yes, if you're a sensitive soul, bring your hankies by all means). And the body count is surprisingly small.


We're in Beijing, early to mid 19th Century. The Qing Dynasty is coming to an end (just before the pervasive Western influence delivers MacDonalds & Starbucks, which may explain why we don't see the likes of these folk these days). Li Mu Bai (Chow), legendary Wudan warrior - trust me, he makes an Elmer Fudd haircut look cool. You've probably all heard of the Shaolin style of martial artistry (as exemplified & popularised by the 70s TV series Kung Fu), well the Wudan monastery were their main competitors in legend & popular culture - and it's a good bet that Li could kick Kwai Chang's butt. Anyhow, Li's tired of a life of derring-do & carnage, and wants to retire, settle down & raise a swag of little Wudan warriors & warriorettes, and get a decent haircut. Trouble is, due to a point of honour long past, he's unable to profess his love to the equally Wudan skilled Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh - who is fantastic, and should probably have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar - you see every emotion cross her expressive face). You can tell they've suffered over this point of honour for decades, and there's great tension between them. Li gives Yu his sword, the mythical Green Destiny, for safe keeping while he retires back to the monastery to meditate & mope.

But bring it on... the Green Destiny is swiftly stolen by a masked thief - NB: at this point it's necessary to suspend disbelief that Wudan warriors possessed some extraordinary powers - ie, they can more or less fly. But trust me, after an initial "Yeah, right" moment, you can settle back & enjoy the action. Yu chases the masked thief up the walls and over the rooves of the neighbouring buildings, in the first of several breathtaking action sequences.

So who is the thief? Could it be the sweet, aristocratic Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is secretly a spoiled, pouting, major butt-kicking warrior-babe? Jen resents her parents because of her upcoming arranged nuptials, while she really loves the bandit Black Cloud (Chang Chen). She is envious too of the life led by Yu (ironically Yu would dearly like the security of Jen's life and the freedom to settle down). Or could it be the evil Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), the woman who murdered Li Mu Bai's master many years ago, and who may or may not be back on the scene? Yu Shu Lien thinks she knows, and there's a very clever sleight of hand scene involving a teacup that confirms her suspicions, which if you blink, you'll miss.

That's the plot. There are of course, numerous twists & turns, the sword is recovered, and stolen again, before the denouement and the Green Destiny returns to its rightful owner.

Worthy as the story is, with its dual love stories, unfulfilled quests for revenge, and feminist themes. It's the fight scenes which raise the movie above the ordinary. Choreographed by the whizz who did the Matrix (I read somewhere that the shooting script merely said... "they fight"). In addition to the opening gravity-defying chase across the rooftops, we are treated to an extraordinary and graceful sword fight amongst the slenderest of branches atop a bamboo forest (the combatants sway with the wind in and out of each others' reach, and leap from treetop to treetop in pursuit of each other); a great chase on horseback (that doubles as foreplay for the young lovers Jen & Black Cloud); the ultimate bar-room brawl, (where the diminutive Jen sorts out numerous ruffians, not to mention demolishes the actual tavern); and a balletic stoush between Yu & Jen (in which they are airborne one way or another most of the time, while utilising every weapon in Yu's extensive armoury). There are several more... not to mention the final showdown.... (gee, could you profess your long hidden love while someone fires hundreds of deadly-poison darts at you & still sound like you mean it? Thought not).

While Chow gets top billing, the movie really belongs to the two women Yu & Jen. Their lives are contrasted, and they yearn for each other's. They also get the most screen time, and display the best moves (pretty awesome moves at that - the two actresses, Yeoh & Zhang, are trained dancers). It's been said that Crouching Tiger is something of a breakthrough in the way of female empowerment in martial arts movies. But really, Yeoh's made a career of kicking butt, and a cursory scan of the Hong Kong section in your video store will show numerous (although less worthy) examples of the martial arts chick flick (Heroic Trio, and the bizarre Naked Killer, to name just two). Although a feminist sub-text can't be denied - even the evil Jade Fox's (Chang Pei Pei starred in a series of Wudan themed movies in the 70s, apparently) motives are revealed to be the result of hitting the Wudan glass ceiling for women. As previously mentioned, Yeoh is phenomenal (acting & action), and Zhang Ziyi makes the most impressive debut I've seen in years.

Gee, I haven't even mentioned the stunning & kinetic cinematography. It took a year to film in some of mainland China's most historic & picturesque spots. Or the costumes and set designs, which surely rival Gladiator, the scenes in Old Beijing look glorious, and Jen's wedding costume brings Star Wars' Queen Amidala to mind. Or the music, which is haunting, and rousing by turns (the soundtrack features Yo Yo Ma).

Rumour has it that we can look forward to both a prequel & a sequel (Crouching Tiger is adapted from the 4th book of a 5 book series written early in the 20th century). We can only hope that Ang Lee directs these too, and that they don't descend to the level of most of the Hong Kong martial arts flicks that grace the screen (like, much as I love him, I don't want to see Jackie Chan in one of them).

If you're wondering about the title, the Crouching Tiger is referred to by Li in a bit of mythical blather, while the Hidden Dragon reference requires a bit of knowledge of Chinese calligraphy - which is on show in a couple of scenes - apparently, the calligraphic symbol for a dragon can be found within the calligraphic representation of Jen's name.

So there you have it. Go see it. It'll walk away with the Best Foreign Language Oscar (confident prediction), and probably deserves to win Best Film - but it probably won't - and a host of others, it's been nominated for 10.

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