Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a beautiful film to watch. I’m curious, though, as to what martial arts fans think about it. It’s not action-packed; the first fifteen minutes are all just a few people sitting around talking. It’s basically about human beings with tragic flaws and feelings of being caged by what life has handed them. There are fight sequences that add excitement, but they’re earned and serve the narrative. Ang Lee mostly accomplishes what he set out to achieve, and the more I think about the film, the more I love it.
I can’t always get behind the mystical realism of some martial arts films. When everyone is flying around like gravity has been cut in half, it’s easy for me to be taken out of the experience. It says something, then, that Crouching Tiger has that element in spades, yet I loved every second of it.
I think it all starts with the story. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is a master swordsman who is in love with Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). They’re both part of the wuxia class of martial artists, which means they try to right wrongs and be the best people they can be for themselves and others. At the start of the film, Mu Bai tells Shu Lien that he is giving up his prized sword, the Green Destiny, and changing his lifestyle. The two have long held feelings for each other, but out of a sense of duty, they never acted on their mutual love. The problem with giving up the sword occurs when Mu Bai entrusts it to Shu Lien’s employer. The sword is stolen, and the theft could potentially cause political strife for friends of both Mu Bai and Shu Lien. Naturally, by trying to give up his fighting ways and embrace his love, Mu Bai has embroiled himself even further in the lifestyle he’s grown tired of. It’s a tragic story, but the sorrow on display is shown in such a poetic and beautiful manner that even without much in the way of tension relief, it never becomes too depressing.
Besides Mu Bai and Shu Lien, there are two other main characters. Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) is a young aristocrat about to be married off to a powerful family. She’s also the sword thief (this happens in the first 20 minutes, so it’s not a spoiler), and the back story between her and her (non-aristocratic) lover, Lo (Chen Chang), is laid out as a lengthy flashback alongside the present-day narrative.
Jen’s theft of the sword is the catalyst for every tragic thing that happens, which is what led me to think about my feelings toward her for the last couple of days. Ang Lee has characterized her as the hero of the film in a sense, and I just don’t have a clue what the hell he’s talking about. She’s young, brash, and doesn’t think about anyone but herself. She steals Mu Bai’s sword “for fun,” and repeatedly rejects his attempts at taking her under his wing. That’s interesting, because traditionally, in martial arts movies, the would-be pupil chases the master around until he relents and decides to teach him or her. In Crouching Tiger, it’s the opposite. Mu Bai has never had a pupil, and at one point he says it’s his one unfulfilled goal in life. Does Jen care, though? Nope. She just wants to do whatever she feels like and be an asshole to everyone she encounters. If she’s a hero, then Gordon Gekko is the patron saint of the middle class.
Even though the film spends a great deal of time showcasing Jen’s assholishness, the ones you should feel empathy for are Mu Bai and Shu Lien. It’s pretty obvious that they’ve loved each other for decades, but they both care too much about doing “the right thing.” In Mu Bai’s case, he actually makes a concerted effort to fix his pig-headedness by giving up his sword. Shu Lien, on the other hand, never really confronts her own feelings even though she wants to. It’s so frustrating to see them struggle to just love each other when this other little bitch runs around without caring at all. I just want to choke the life out of Jen, and if I knew any grappling techniques, I would try them all out on her (hopefully) unsuspecting ass.
Lo is a character I can get behind. He’s a desert nomad who’s fashioned himself his own local legend. To people traveling near his territory, he’s known as Dark Cloud. That name brings with it a sense of fear, but the pretense is short-lived once he meets Jen. He tries to steal her comb, and as you could guess by my previous characterization of her, it doesn’t go over well. One thing leads to another, and Lo falls madly in love with Jen. The thing is, I don’t believe she ever loved him back. I think she was enamored with a new lifestyle, and she milked his love for all she could get from it. I’m not giving anything away by reiterating how selfish she is, even in the face of the one person who loves her unconditionally.
It’s easy for me to go on tangents when talking about Crouching Tiger. There are a lot of little character traits that I’d love to sit here and discuss for the next hour. Obviously, that can’t happen, so I feel that I should mention the one obvious thing still not discussed. That’s right, Yuen Woo-ping. The man directed Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master, and Iron Monkey. He was also the action director/choreographer for Kill Bill Vol. 2, Once Upon a Time in China, and even The Matrix. I’m doing him a disservice by not mentioning every single martial arts film he was a part of. He’s a legend in the field, and his work on Crouching Tiger is more than just his reputation preceding him. Every fight scene is a fluid, cinematic exercise in how to infuse meaning into each blow. The characters are visually represented in how they fight, and even the sorrow and frustration of Shu Lien is explicitly shown when she confronts Jen in a pivotal scene toward the end of the film. Without Woo-ping’s expertise, the physical clashes between characters would have distracted from the dramatic tension that serves as the film’s anchor. That’s a really heavy way of saying that the action set pieces are nothing less than brilliant. If you want to impress someone with your martial arts choreography knowledge, just pop in Crouching Tiger. You can thank me later with an exchange of money or political favors.
The bottom line is that you owe it to yourself to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Even if martial arts films aren’t your cup of tea, I think there’s enough here to engage you on some level. It’s not a punching fest by any means, and the occasional bouts of melodrama don’t even come close to dampening the emotional impact of the characters’ tragic lives. Once this tournament is over, I might even do a write-up on the ending of the film for the sole purpose of understanding the character dynamics. In any case, give me your thoughts in the comments. Whether or not I win this round is irrelevant; I just want to discuss this film with you.