Should I Watch..? 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'
What's the big deal?
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an epic martial arts drama released in 2000 and is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Wang Dulu, part of his Crane Iron Pentalogy. The film is an example of "wuxia", a genre concerning the adventures of ancient heroes in China. Set in a land where myth and legend collide, the film follows the efforts of a legendary warrior and the woman he loves to track down a sword stolen by a highly trained thief, themselves conflicted by romantic complications. The film stars Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen and was directed by Ang Lee, his first martial-arts movie. Despite a mostly Asian cast and crew, Lee specifically made the film to appeal to Western audiences and it paid off, becoming a surprise smash with global earnings of more than $213 million. The film also earned several Academy Award nominations (winning four) as well as near-universal praise from critics. Not only did the film inspire other Asian directors like Zhang Yimou to explore Western appeal but also continues to be hailed as one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made.
What's it about?
Sometime in the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty, legendary warrior Li Mu Bai is ready to finally retire and asks Yu Shu Lien to take his sword known as the Green Destiny to Sir Te, their mutual benefactor. Bai and Lien have deep feelings for each other but Lien was engaged to Bai's friend Meng, who tragically died before the wedding, and neither wish to disrespect his memory. Lien takes the sword to Sir Te, who is hosting Governor Yu and his daughter Jen Yu who is about to be married herself. Bai, meanwhile, seeks forgiveness from his dead master for failing to apprehend his killer, the villainous Jade Fox.
That night, the Green Destiny is stolen by a highly-trained thief who barely manages to escape the pursuit of Lien. Lien discovers that the thief was trained at Wudang - the same place that taught Bai and whose skills Jade Fox sought - and traces the thief back to Governor Yu's compound. Lien and Bai reunite and discover that Fox has been hiding in plain sight as Jen's governess and has taught her charge a few tricks of her own...
Li Mu Bai
Yu Shu Lien
Lo "Dark Cloud"
Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus & Kuo Jung Tsai*
Release Date (UK)
5th January, 2001
Action, Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Set Direction, Best Foreign Language Film
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song
What's to like?
Assume for a moment that you are only interested in the martial arts and not the narrative. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has become synonymous with the sort of high-flying, balletic scenes we fell in love with in The Matrix - which isn't surprising seeing as choreographer Yuen Wo Ping also worked on that movie as well. But this film elevates such work to another level - it's achingly beautiful at times with characters chasing each other across rooves and a lake, their feet barely dipping into the water before duelling each other in the treetops, swinging at seemingly impossible angles. Without any other context, these moments alone are worth the effort. Even more traditional sequences such as one-on-one sword fights or the scene where an entire gang are dismantled in a restaurant are breath-taking in their speed and physical prowess. Fans of this type of action will be beside themselves in glee and even when the fighting stops, the scenery and sets make China feel as remote and fantastical as Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth.
Now imagine that you are interested in story, characters and drama instead of all that kung-fu nonsense. Again, the film demonstrates an unusual ability to go deeper into these characters than most of these films usually do. Chow and Yeoh are magnificent as the two heroes caught in a relationship that can neither go anywhere or develop through a sense of honour. Ziyi, however, is electric as Jen - moving gracefully through the action scenes but still proving to be tender and gentle when the film demands it. Her character is the most intriguing of all and it's no wonder Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon helped make her a star in the West as well as her homeland. The film even throws in a bit of comedy in places, lightening the mood before the increasingly tragic tale continues. Combined with the pioneering action scenes and a haunting score by Tan Dun, the film is a potent reminder to everyone in the West that when it comes to these kind of films then Hollywood has a lot to learn from Asian cinema.
- Curiously, the film was not as well received in China as it was among Western critics. Many Chinese-speaking people cited the fact that the four main actors all had different accents, confusing audiences. In fact, neither Chow or Yeoh speak Mandarin as a mother tongue - Chow himself described his accent as "awful".
- Ziyi had received no training in martial arts before filming began. Instead, she used techniques learned as a dancer to memorise the moves in fight sequences. In fact, Ziyi has never formally received martial arts training.
- The title comes from a Chinese idiom which discusses people hiding their true talents from others, a theme recurrent in the movie. It also refers to the surnames of Lo and Jen's characters, translated as 'tiger' and 'dragon' respectively.
- The film still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a foreign film and was the first martial arts film to receive a nod for Best Picture - to date, the only such film nominated.
What's not to like?
My only real gripe, and I admit that this is so very slight that it's not even worth mentioning, is that I feel that the pace of the film feels uneven. The narrative stops for an extremely prolonged flashbang detailing the romantic backstory between two characters, jumping from a midnight meeting in Peking to the harsh sands of the Gobi Desert and a significant period of time passing. Of course, this is necessary to explain the story but it almost feels a little disconcerting when the story suddenly jumps back to Peking.
If you intend to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which I sincerely hope that you now are, otherwise what's the point?) then I recommend ditching the dub and sticking with traditional subtitles, as I do for all foreign language films. Dubbing might be good for people who get easily distracted but I feel you miss much of what is actually being said as well as completely missing out on the actor's performance. Apart from the extended flashback and a downbeat ending, I'd recommend this movie to absolutely anyone. It defies gravity as easily as it defies your expectation and even after so many imitators, it remains a hopelessly beautiful and exquisite film to watch.
Should I watch it?
It's a rare film that appeals to so many audience types but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a total success - winning over fans of traditional martial arts films as easily as those wanting a heart-breaking drama that offers something a little different. It might be a bit too melodramatic for fans of Bruce Lee but the film is a winner on every level as far as I'm concerned, framing its epic narrative on fight scenes that simply amaze. Give it a chance and prepare to be blown away.
Great For: martial arts fans, lovers of cinema, date nights, anyone teaching at a local martial arts school
Not So Great For: Hollywood martial arts movies, people like Jean-Claude Van Damme who could never look as graceful as this, impatient viewers
What else should I watch?
To say that it opened the doors to Hollywood for wuxia films is an understatement. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opened up possibilities for directors with their own take on such films such as Zhang Yimou who produced the equally well-received epic Hero in 2002. It was eventually released in 2004 along with my personal favourite of his, the stunning House Of Flying Daggers which has a more Western-friendly storyline about a love triangle between a blind rebel and two police officers fighting over her hand. Maintaining the same levels of technical skill and artistry shown here, it might just be my favourite martial arts film ever.
Hollywood, meanwhile, continues to churn out pale imitations of martial arts films that fail to recreate the historical nature of wuxia movies. Consider the likes of Bulletproof Monk, Kiss Of The Dragon or the remake of The Karate Kid as examples to probably stay away from. Personally, my favourite martial arts star is the incredibly agile and comedic Jackie Chan who improves the likes of Rush Hour and The Tuxedo enormously.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox