I’m biased (which I’ll get into), but this is probably my favorite film of the year.
Ang Lee, the director responsible for films like The Ice Storm and Eat Drink Man Woman, here delivers a fascinating exploration of the traditional Chinese Wuxia Pian (film of martial chivalry.) With a blend of traditional elements and a modern attention to craft and character this film plays like a weird hybrid between the worlds of King Hu , Tsui Hark and Lee’s own efforts. With an overalltone straight out of Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn or Come Drink With Me, wild bursts of outrageous, fantastic action a’ la Tsui’s Once Upon a Time in China or Zu, Warrior from the Magic Mountain and Lee’s own masterful appreciation of humanity. Crouching Tiger. represents a unique and welcomed achievement in genre cinema- a film that should satisfy both the genre fan and (because of its Academy blessed pedigree) the casual moviegoer.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that piece off my chest, I guess I should save myself some grief and fill out the above caveat about my bias towards this film. Without question, wuxia pian is the genre that I’ve spent the most time watching and studying over the past few years. I am a confirmed devotee of the style and it’s luminaries, folks like the aforementioned King Hu and Tsui Hark, as well as other noteworthy proponents like Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-Leung, Cheung Siu-Tung, and Yuen Wo-Ping (this film’s fight choreographer- one of the five best in the business.) In other words, I love this stuff.
Because of the above I’ve been impatiently awaiting the release of this film. Even my now years old disappointment over the failure to sign wuxia superman Jet Li for the role now occupied by Chow Yun-Fat (a wonderful actor but not a millionth the martial artist Li is) did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for this film. Luckily it more than delivers on it’s immense promise, providing a classic tale of honor touched up with a modern take on character and vaulted up the charts with a full serving of over the top, wire-enhanced action.
And make no mistake about it, this is an action movie. A damn fine one in fact. Choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping strikes a wonderful balance between the weightless, fantasy style that sometimes alienates Western audiences* and the rapid fire, more realistic style the Yuen clan (Wo-ping and several stuntmen/ choreographers he works closely with) used so effectively in Gordon Chan’s Fist of Legend. The latter approach providing the best fight in the film, a breathtaking weapons duel between Michelle Yeoh and the eye-opening (in more ways than one- she’s a lovely young lady) newcomer Zhang Ziyi.
That the fights are good should come as no surprise however, owing to Yuen’s presence. After all, the thirty year veteran is the man responsible, as director, for genre classics like Iron Monkey, The Magnificent Butcher, and Drunken Master as well as the fights in The Matrix (which is the only film mentioned in this article I’m going to assume anyone has seen.) Think about it, he made Keanu Reeves look, er. sort of okay. If that’s not an achievement I don’t know what is.
Of course, with Lee at the helm, there’s more to this movie than the fights (although, as some uninformed critics might have you believe it’s not the only wuxia able to make that claim.) Rich with intrigue and emotion this epic tale carries just as well during conversation as it does when super-powered combatants take to the sky. Featuring solid performances by all the principals and a welcome, rugged appearance by the "queen of wuxia" herself, Cheng Pei-Pei (star of 60s/70s classics like Come Drink With Me and the seminal Golden Swallow/ Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick), Crouching Tiger. has the chops to please even the most action-phobic moviegoer.
Most highly recommended.
*Actually, because of the effect of this purely- intentional genre style, I’m forced to try and see the film a second time. Hopefully towards the end of it’s run and somewhere I can be alone in the theater. See, at the critics screening I attended, some clown at the back of the theater could not stop laughing at any and all of the action scenes featuring wires. Laughing really loud. After the first couple of times I hoped the bozo would figure out that was plainly intentional or maybe sniff out a genre convention at work, but he didn’t. Not even close. Instead, he who we’ll call Johnny Puerco (although just for fun) let fly with an endless series of room shaking belly laughs that couldn’t have been more distracting if they’d been designed to drive me insane. As I said to him as I left the theater, "thank you very much" Delivered with only a trace of sarcasm, I assure you.
Originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in December 2000.