Friday, October 17, 2014

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Wo hu cang long, Taiwan / Hong Kong / USA / China, 120 minutes
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Du Lu Wang, Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai
Photography: Peter Pau
Music: Dun Tan
Editor: Tim Squyres
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Lung Sihung, Cheng Pei-pei, Li Fazeng, Gao Xian, Hai Yan, Wang Deming, Li Li

Director Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—a project of love if ever there was one—still sits comfortably high on the list of 21st-century films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, some 14 years on. But it seems every time I see this valentine to Lee's origins I like it a little less. Equal parts old-fashioned Hollywood potboiler, newfangled martial arts epic, overindulgent fairy tale, and great swooning romance (make that two great swooning romances), it shows among other things how deeply Lee had embraced the aesthetic of Oscar-bait even then, with its expensive color tones and crane shots, its impressive roster of Asian stars, and its clockwork alternations between ponderous exposition and gripping action scenes.

For balance, for fans, here is Richard Corliss of Time outlining the appeal: "The director convened stars of three movie eras—pioneer kung-femme Cheng Pei-pei from the 1960s, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh from Hong Kong’s glorious ’80s and bright new lights Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen—and set them to battling over a magical sword. When the actors aren’t flying across roofs and balancing on treetops, in fight scenes choreographed by the great Yuen Wo-ping, they are navigating the murkier regions of personal responsibility and unspoken love. Crouching Tiger is a movie of gravity and buoyancy, of high art and higher spirits. It’s contemplative, and it kicks ass."

Thus, caveats, folks. I don't know enough about Asian cinema, now or then, to judge the star impact. It still has almost none on me, though everyone is clearly good. It reminds me of a latter-day Star Wars entry, specifically Episode I: The Phantom Menace, overburdened with careerists eager to get the franchise on their resumes and so blinded by its own regard for itself it never seems to notice its own inertia—seems unlikely even to grasp that it could travel to such backwaters as boredom. Lee had earned the opportunity with a number of successful Hollywood productions, including Sense and Sensibility, and two others I like much more by him, The Wedding Banquet and The Ice Storm. And the American public was well primed for something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with a long-percolating underground interest in Hong Kong action movies dating to the '80s and a surprise hit in The Matrix in 1999.

Certainly there is no denying the soaring yet visceral appeal of the fights in Crouching Tiger, specifically the wire work of Yuen Wo-ping cited by Corliss. These flights of magic that have long populated Asian cinema have always been among my favorite parts of the pictures I've seen, such as A Chinese Ghost Story, and unquestionably they are arresting when they are on screen here. They are the best example of a fluid and lyrical style carried through on every level—camera movements, acting styles, the complicated fairy tale of the sword at the center of it, but most especially when it comes to weapons and combat. The motions are graceful, beautiful, skipping across roofs and treetops, running headlong up and down walls, and clanging and bashing steel on steel. They are wonderful dance scenes, energized by the combat that drives them.

The story is not without some nice moments along its arc. There's a wonderful long crazy love scene between a high official's daughter, Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), and an orphaned bandit, Dark Cloud (Chen Chang), inserted as a flashback and then brought seamlessly back to the main narrative. Jen Yu is the most unbelievable character of a bunch of unbelievable characters—with a secret identity no less, she brings the story right down to the comic book level—but she is also the most fascinating character, the most rewarding of the suspension of disbelief that is so necessary here, and Zhang's performance is impressive. The long flashback scene set in the desert offers up an alien landscape and turns the picture into a weird mix and match of Lawrence of Arabia and an American Western (I had to look up to confirm the whole thing was filmed in China). But somehow it works, perhaps as a function of the spectacular landscapes.

Still, the only things new about any of this were probably the money Lee was able to command for the project, and the mass American audience that came prepared to love it. I've seen enough Hong Kong cinema to know that for every element that works in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon there are movies that already did it, and better. Lee's achievement is a matter of synthesis (and the money). His movie never had to try that hard outside of the marketing department, and it shows, which as much as anything is why it reminds me of The Phantom Menace. But I don't bring a fan's enthusiasm to these judgments. To me Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn't read like a great story so much as a rather mechanistic workup of fairy tale elements for the sake of providing context for brilliant fight scenes. Brilliant fight scenes, but isolated here as much as they would be if they were truncated from the narrative and scored with seething, churning, pumping pop music. In fact, I suspect they're even better that way, but I haven't been moved yet to look for examples on YouTube.


  1. Fun to see your comments here. What I find most useful about this movie is that it introduced Western audiences to a few of my favorites in an acceptable way without completely ruining what made them great in the first place. The vast majority of my ... well, acquaintances at least, if not friends ... haven't seen the classic HK films. They think of John Woo as the director of Face/Off and that Mission Impossible movie, they don't think about Chow Yun-Fat at all (hopefully ... his American movies weren't much good), and Michelle Yeoh is that chick in the James Bond movie. CTHD is a movie I can point to and say, here is Chow, here is Michelle Yeoh, here is the master of wire-fu. I agree with you that most of what's in the movie had already been done, and better. But outside of his cult, I can't get people to watch Chow in the Better Tomorrows, or Killer and Hard-Boiled, or Once a Thief, or his lesser things like God of Gamblers. And I feel bad about that, because I think he is one of the great movie stars of our time. CTHD didn't really make him a big star in the U.S., so for that, at least, the film failed.

    Mostly I'm just glad there's at least one HK movie that "regular" people watched that didn't embarrass its roots.

  2. Yeah, I do respect it a lot for what it is.