Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

D: Ang Lee
S: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh

Elegantly rendered mythological action drama from Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm). The story is taken from the novel by Du Lu Wang (adapted by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai). It concerns the intertwining destinies of a group of warriors, nobles, and rogues during the Quing dynasty. Much of it revolves around possession of a 400 year-old sword, a literal talisman of the honours and potential dishonours of conflict. Retiring veteran Chow Yun-Fat (Hard Boiled, The Replacement Killers) first entrusts the sword to his old friend and unrequited love Michelle Yeoh (Police Story 3, Tomorrow Never Dies), who runs a security company. She is to transport it to venerable Lung Sihung (Eat Drink Man Woman), but things go awry not long after her arrival at his home when Zhang Ziyi, the precocious daughter of a visiting Governor, takes a fancy to this symbol of a life she has never had and it disappears. Meanwhile rumours abound that a deadly assassin responsible for the death of Chow's legendary master is abroad, and the sword may yet have much work to do. A quest to retrieve it therefore begins, and this will eventually entangle all of the principals in a series of moral, ethical, and personal confrontations leading to an inevitable (if ambiguous) finale.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be a revelation to many viewers, an seemingly incongruous combination of elaborate fantasy-themed action set pieces and po-faced emotional drama in which notions of honour, truth, and justice are problematised. For some it may be the only foreign-language film they see all year, and it is likely to be something they won't forget for the same reasons. As such and for this type of viewer, it may live up to its considerable hype. The film does feature some eye-popping martial arts scenes choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping (best known in the west for his work on The Matrix). It is beautifully photographed, well acted, nicely scored, and in all respects provides a good evening's entertainment and is a well-crafted work of cinema.

More experienced movie buffs will be less surprised by the basics, and indeed will probably find themselves remembering movies where a lot of this has been done before (and sometimes with more vigour). From the vintage Hong Kong epics of the 1960s and 70s to the more modern spin provided by the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam, this particular variety of action melodrama has a long history and an ever more prominent place in the palette of the world cinema viewer. Yet this audience will also probably derive the most pleasure from Lee's take on the genre. Few filmmakers have been as delicate with the material. Every aspect of this film has been crafted with a demonstrable understanding of the nuances of character and theme which are weaved through it.

Every scene is beautifully balanced so that the actors are allowed to develop rich and interesting characterisations in which much is unspoken but everything is said. Every shot seems paced just right. Lee makes excellent use of scenery, costumes, and props so that the audience has time to understand the dynamics of the scene on every level. All of the issues at stake in any given set of character interactions are clearly outlined, and all of it is set against a backdrop of spiritual and political activity which have a feel of authenticity in spite of being seen through the filters of history, fantasy, and nostalgia. Chow and Yeoh have dream roles which allow them to really extend their range to pure drama and both are superb. The rest of the cast are equally sharp in portraying the range of emotions and intrigues which comprise the individual scenes, allowing the film to mount considerable force on a thematic level. Its notions of duty, honour, and justice are not vague and abstract. They are derived from characters and from the environment in a way which satisfies on both dramatic and discursive levels.

The action scenes may not be as spectacular as those in genre classics including The Young Master or Peking Opera Blues, but they express meaning with as much clarity as the drama scenes which precede and follow them. Characters are as clearly defined in combat as they are when working their way through the minefield of verbal and non-verbal communication around dinner tables and in parlours. Indeed the action and drama scenes play perfectly against one another. Like thesis and antithesis, the collision between them produces another level of understanding which expands on and consolidates ideas explored in individual sequences. The film is not only po-faced in its treatment of action and melodrama, but deeply serious in a way which transcends the heartfelt but heavy-handed approach favoured by John Woo. This is a serious and intelligent film in all respects, and because it manages to articulate its point of view so clearly, it avoids the trap of pretentiousness and condescension. Lee has brought all of his keen observational skills to bear on a story which is up to the challenge of holding his gaze. The result is both a vindication of the genre and a highpoint in its evolution.

The real question though is just how long this novelty will hold its place in the minds of its various audiences. Casual viewers will enjoy it, and they will probably recall it as a curio in years to come. Movie buffs will enjoy it for different reasons, but will they find themselves returning to it as readily as to their favourite European-art house or plain old HK action flick picks? Only time will tell, and will ultimately be the measure of its 'classic' status. For the time being it is safe to say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is worthwhile viewing and highly recommended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.