"When it comes to the affairs of the heart, even the greatest warriors can be a consummate idiots." - Sir Te
Director: Ang Lee
Writer: Du Lu Wang, Hui-Ling Wang, James Shamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai
Principal cast members:
This film is one of the most visually overwhelming films of all time and features two of the most beautiful and perfectly portrayed love stories ever to share a film. It is clothed in the guise of a Hong Kong wire-fu martial arts movie but this disguise cannot conceal the masterpiece within, a film that features amazing writing, spectacular cinematography, brilliant acting, and flawless direction.
The story comes across as a legendary tale. There is a legendary lawman named Li Mu Bai who wields the legendary sword, Green Destiny. Li Mu Bai has grown a bit jaded and weary in his life of fighting crime and he gives the sword to a nobleman whom he serves. It is delivered by a close friend of his, a security specialist named Yu Shu Lien. In their first scenes together, it becomes clear to us that Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are deeply in love, but have kept themselves apart because of the demands of their lives over the years. When the Green Destiny sword is stolen, apparently by a master criminal named Jade Fox, both Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien begin tracking down the perpetrator in a series of utterly amazing martial arts battles. As they do, their stories intertwine with Jen, the willful daughter of the new governor. It isn't long before Jen becomes the center and focus of the story.
In an elaborate flashback, we learn that Jen herself was once kidnapped by a wild bandit named Lo. Over time, she and Lo fell in love, but Jen returned to her former life and turned him away. They too, as we can see, are deeply in love and unlike the restrained formality that exists between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, Jen and Lo are passionate in their love-hate relationship and act it out in amazing ways. Though the older and more restrained couple seems to be the moral center of the story, it is this younger, fierier couple that contains the title characters - Lo being the Crouching Tiger and Jen being the Hidden Dragon. Throughout the story, Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are tracking Jen and also keeping an eye out for the Jade Fox. Confrontations are inevitable and the outcome far from certain.
It is not a film of happy endings. These are tragic, yet painfully beautiful love stories. The story being told here is one that breaks the heart, yet leaves you feeling as if you've seen one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
Adding to that impression is the cinematography of this film. Peter Pau won an Oscar for directing the camera work in the film and it is no wonder why. Every scene is beautifully crafted whether it is the simplicity of a room in which a woman practices calligraphy or a bamboo forest where the most improbable of fights is taking place in the tops of the trees. Pau masterfully captures the incredible beauty of China's wilderness, the stark desolation of the Mongolian regions, the crowded chaos of Chinese cities, and the placid beauty of rooms in repose. He also captures some of the most amazingly choreographed fight scenes in cinema history.
The scenery and the battles would make the movie interesting enough to watch, but it comes with four extremely powerful acting performances. The Crouching Tiger, Lo, is played by Chen Chang who has full career of Asian films under his belt. In him we see Lo as an honorable outlaw, an independent spirit who has a strong sense of humor to go with his barbaric lifestyle. While Jen is his captive, he is kind and playful with her, though he clearly isn't about to let her go. Later, when he pursues the young woman he has come to love, we see his passion and his earnestness, his courage and willingness to brave anything to win the woman he loves.
Jen is played by Ziyi Zhang and is probably the most complex and fascinating character in the film. Though the youngest of the principal characters, we see she has led a fascinating life already. Her captivity by Lo, her life at court learning the arts, and her secret life all come out in pieces. She is a strong-willed independent young woman and discipline is difficult for her to find. She wants her own way and has the skills to impose her will on almost everyone around her. Zhang is stunning in peaceful scenes, but even more overwhelming in the fight scenes. She is the antithesis of Li Mu Bai - a supremely skilled fighter who unlike him is ruled by emotion and passion and lacks the discipline of self-control. As the story progresses, we come more and more to understand that Jen has never been able to find what she wants, has always felt the need to seek something she cannot have.
Chow Yun Fat plays Li Mu Bai. There is a subtle perfection to his portrayal. His slow realization of his love for Yu Shu Lien is aching to watch, yet beautiful. He pursues Jen yet we see that his fervor to catch her is not to impose the law upon her, but to help her find the training and discipline she needs to refine her amazing skills. When he captures and interrogates Lo, he instantly senses the motivations and purity of heart in the reckless outlaw and sends him to a place of safety to wait for Jen. Li Mu Bai is not so much the center of the story, but more the window that allows us to see the other characters with a more objective and sympathetic eye.
But the point of view that seems to best match our own is ultimately that of Yu Shu Lien. Michelle Yeoh turns in one of the most amazing performances ever as Li Mu Bai's friend and as a skilled fighter on her own merits. Where Li Mu Bai controls his outward emotions even toward the criminals he fights, Yu Shu Lien lets her anger show and concentrates on keeping it under just enough restraint to do her job. It is easy to see why she sympathizes with Jen. Jen is just a younger version of her. Yu Shu Lien is older and wiser and more practiced at keeping her life in control, but she understands the passion and yearning that drive Jen all too well. One of the most exciting battles of the film takes place between these two women at the headquarters of Yu Shu Lien's company. It is the most unrestrained and emotional fight in the film and the strength and power of the two female leads is almost overwhelming. Yeoh is absolutely perfect portraying a woman who spends too much of her life denying what she really wants until the moment has almost passed, then faces losing it forever.
Lee earned nominations for Best Director and Best Picture with the film. His direction is exquisite. He blends images, action, and dialogue seamlessly to both tell the story and reveal these marvelous characters. He is deft at using lighting and perspective to add to the human emotion of a scene. The fights in the film have all the fantastic appeal the martial arts fans desire, but also have a sense of truth and reality to go with the elements of fantasy. He makes it clear that these are extraordinary people with gifts that exceed our normal laws of physics, yet they never stop being human and we never stop caring about them.
For an English-speaking audience, it is strongly recommended that you use English subtitles and let the audio present the actual voices of the cast speaking Chinese. Trying to watch this film with dubbed English can be painful - the dubbed voices are utterly incapable of carrying the love stories the film is telling. I am told that true Chinese audiences find Chow Yun-Fat's Mandarin accent a bit difficult and inaccurate while Michelle Yeoh's Malaysian accent makes her utterly unconvincing and for Chinese audiences, they actually dubbed her voice with that of a Mandarin actress. For us Yanks, it's all Chinese and that poses no problem. I prefer hearing the actual actress' emotion carried in the voice, even if I don't understand a word of it.
This is a film that comes dangerously close to overwhelming us. The visuals, the action, and the flawless portrayals of these poignant love stories are all powerful and perfectly executed. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a masterpiece.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 8