Sunday, April 26, 2015

Film Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
**** (out of ****)

Fifteen years after Ang Lee's martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) was released it still manages to tell an amazing story and dazzle us with its choreography.

When I first saw "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in theaters I was seventeen years old. At the time I was very impressed with the movie. I remembered it being an epic love story. Yes, the fighting scenes were the best I had ever seen, at that point in my life, but, it was the human emotion which really struck me at the time.

I had not seen Ang Lee's film since that time. One day, after buying the movie on DVD, I decided to sit down and watch it again. Would the movie still be able to hold up after a second viewing? Was my memory playing tricks on me? Was "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" worthy of all the critical and box-office attention it received upon initial release?

As I watched the movie again I enjoyed it but for some reason I was no longer impressed by the choreography. The sword fights, which had garnered so much praise back in 2000, did little for me. It now seemed clumsily put together. I wasn't as involved in the drama of the story. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" no longer seemed to be a great movie. Maybe because I was young and was not familiar with martial art movies it struck me. Could be. For whatever reason though, I wasn't content to leave it at that. How could I have loved this movie so much when I first saw it and now, granted, fifteen years later, feel so ho-hum about it? So, I watched it a third time and a fourth time.

I'm glad I did. I'm glad I was willing to give this film a fighting chance.

What had prevented me from enjoying the movie as I once did as a teenager, I believe, was I was expecting one type of movie and was disappointed it wasn't what I remembered. I wasn't responding to the movie as I thought I should. I wasn't, in a way, capable of reliving my youth. In short, I wasn't willing to accept the movie for what it is not what I wanted it to be.

Most people who watch this movie describe it as a love story, as I also did. Having seen it again I don't think of it that way. Two very specific things caught my attention a fourth time around. One - we are dealing with a story of tradition vs a new world. Some of the characters in the movie are bound by tradition and honor. They understand their place in the world and what is expected of them. Tradition my prevent them from living the life they want but you must respect tradition. These characters represent the older generation. They are contrasted by the younger generation. They represent a "new world". They do not want to be chained down by tradition. They want to live their lives as they see fit. They will love who they want to love. Marry whom they want not who their family has chosen for them. Each side has its virtues. Each side its faults.

The second element of the story which caught my attention - the role of women. Female characters dominate this story. The female characters are the aggressors. The best choreographed sword fights in the movie involve the women. The women are driven by lust, love, tradition and revenge. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is their story. The female characters live in a world where they are not seen as equals to men. They are forbidden to learn the martial arts. They are forbidden to love whomever they want. Society has certain expectations for and of women. These characters struggle with the idea of accepting their place in the world and living by the standards society expects of them.

The main character in the movie is Master Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow). He is an old warrior, who now in the September of his years, has gained a conscience. The memory of all the people he has killed by the blade of his sword distresses him. It is no different than the gunfighter in a western facing death regretting all the lives he as taken. Think of Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" (1992). Master Bai wants to give up his sword. Besides all the lives he has taken he also regrets he has never told the woman he loves, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), how he feels about her. He was a blood brother to the man Lien planned on marrying. He died and Bai and Lien would forever have to remain in a state of mourning and honor the memory of the man. Despite the fact Lien also loves Bai.

Secretly they each know how the other feels. But, until the words are spoken, no action can be taken.One of them must end the unspoken code between them and break the past. Break away from tradition.

These characters are contrasted by Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of a Govenor, and a bandit known as Dark Cloud (Chen Chang). Jen is soon to be married to a man she does not love. It is an arranged marriage. Jen wants to "live". She wants to be her own person. He wants to learn the martial arts and possibly marry the bandit Dark Cloud, which would cause disgrace to her family.

In order to add an element of excitement to the story there is some non-sense involving Bai's sword, Green Destiny, which has gone missing, after Bai gave it to an old friend. Could the Jade Fox, a mysterious criminal, have stolen it? Jade Fox is the one who killed Bai's master and Bai has sworn revenge ever since.

I call it "nonsense" because it is the largely the social themes which now make the story interesting to me. The plot serves the function of presenting a story for those not interesting in "message" movies and provided a way for the studio to market the movie for release. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" could and was promoted as a "martial arts" movie which would give it the potential to reach a wider audience instead of being seen as a foreign film about emotions.

The choreography in the movie was expertly done by Yuen Woo-ping, who also worked with Jackie Chan and on American movies such as "The Matrix" (1999) and "Kill Bill" (2003) and is a director in his own right, having directed the wonderful "Iron Monkey" (1993, though released in the U.S. in 2001). The choreography is very fast moving and intense. The cinematography by Peter Pau equally adds to the effect along with the rapid edits which make the characters appear to be fighting at lightening speed, which create a level of suspense. Each move serves a purpose and is not unlike a dance. Everything is done for a reason.

The two best fight scenes are between Jen and Lien, as they fly on roof tops and climb up walls and counter each thrust of the sword. The only poorly done fight scene is between Bai and Jen as they fight on top of bamboo trees. The setting is awkward at best and the sequence is more about facial expressions than swordplay. It lacks the excitement and intensity of every other fight sequence in the movie.

Going back to the gender of the characters it is very interesting the leading male character is the most passive. He doesn't want to fight. He wants to be a mentor. He does not want more blood on his hands while every female character is fuel by anger, make nearly all of their decisions based on emotion and are driven by revenge. Two of the female characters openly resent the male dominated world they live in and feel because they were born women are not able to live up to their full potential. Society cannot and will not accept them in the roles they most want to achieve.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was a box-office success, grossing more than $100 million in the United States alone and more than $200 million world-wide, making it, at the time of release, the highest grossing foreign language movie at the U.S. box-office. The movie went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director, best foreign language film (which it won, representing Twain) and best cinematography, which it also won and film critics, like Roger Ebert, placed it on their annual top ten list.

The movie helped the actors gain international fame. Michelle Yeoh would go on to star in "The Lady" (2011), lend her voice to "Kung Fu Panda 2" (2011) and "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), as would Ziyi Zhang, who would also star in "Rush Hour 2" (2001).

The movie also helped pave the way for the films of Zhang Yimou to be released such as "Hero" (2004), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) and "The Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006) as well as John Woo's "Red Cliff" (2009).

Ang Lee would also see a boost in his career due to this movie. Prior to its release, Lee had directed American films such as "The Ice Storm" (1997) and "Sense & Sensibility" (1995). After this movie he would direct diverse movies such as "Hulk" (2003), "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) and "Life of Pi" (2012), for which he would win an Academy Award for his directing.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a smart movie. It is about more than its fight scenes. There is a social commentary being made here, but, don't let that scare you away.