The best films are often the ones we can’t categorize. We’re so used to seeing easily definable characters and situations on-screen that when a filmmaker or actor surprises us, we’re grateful, somewhat shocked and frequently very pleased.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film that revels in defying expectations. It’s an amalgamation of romance, revolutionary action and epic storytelling that repeals the laws of gravity while telling a touching, layered tale of unrequited love and unrealized possibilities. It’s a little bit of everything, and yet it’s rarely confusing and frequently fascinating. For director Ang Lee, the picture is a career-defining achievement.
Lee hasn’t made his name as a director of martial arts films. He moved to the States from Taiwan when he was 24, and his career so far has consisted of artful character-based dramas like Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. But citing tales from his youth as his inspiration, Lee and his three screenwriters have fashioned a film that combines old-fashioned storytelling with a fascinating, dreamlike re-imagination of martial arts wizardry. All in all, it’s like nothing most Americans have ever seen.
Most of the film revolves around Jen Yu (19-year-old Zhang Ziyi), a pampered nobleman’s daughter who longs for the life led by Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a bodyguard who doesn’t take orders from any man. Shu Lien harbors a long-smoldering love for legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), who’s thinking about giving up the ass-kicking life. The chemistry between the two is reserved but palpable; Lee had the sense not to spend his film focused on any one aspect of this mixed bag, so the romance is given only the time it needs to become obvious.
There’s trouble when Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai’s sword, is stolen by a fleet-footed thief. He thinks Jade Fox, the villain who killed his master, is behind it. Complications ensue, and we watch the growth of Jen Yu through a densely layered story featuring betrayals, surprises and some of the most praise-Jesus glorious fighting you’ve ever seen on-screen.
For all of Lee’s sedate, tailored storytelling and the actors’ pinpoint performances, the real star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is Yuen Wo-Ping, the revered fight choreographer who has worked with Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Sammo Hung. He even managed to make Keanu Reeves look like a god in The Matrix. His work in this film feels like one long jazz solo, as he combines technical innovations with his own astounding imagination (and also makes this a really good winter for fight scenes, what with Charlie’s Angels still in theaters).
The stars fight from the tops of thin trees that bend under their weight. They exhaust an arsenal of weapons in a series of picture-perfect dance numbers disguised as mortal combat. What’s more, they fly—really.
We’re told their abilities are a product of their study of a particular school of combat that allows the warrior to be free from the constraints of the mind. It sounds hokey, but after you watch Shu Lien frantically chase the sword thief across rooftops with one impossibly graceful bound, unless you’re made of stone, you’ll believe.
The actors wore wires, which were then digitally removed. These fights carry a dreamlike quality, and the entire picture becomes infused with the same degree of wonder. We get the sense we’re watching something bigger than ourselves—a picture that will still feel important and remarkable years from now.
Because even movie executives can tell when they’ve got something this good in their hands, Crouching Tiger is getting a wide theatrical release in America—even though all the dialogue is subtitled and none of the stars is yet a household name over here.
But the best parts of the film are those with no words. When your characters fly through the air, across the ground and through each other’s lives with this much style and ease, not much more can be said.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (PG-13) HHHH Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat.