Wo hu cang long (2000)

reviewed by
Shannon Patrick Sullivan

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) / *** 1/2 aka WO HU ZANG LONG [Mandarin; English subtitles]

Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus and Kuo Jung Tsai, based on the novel by Du Lu Wang. Starring Chun-Yow Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated PG for mature theme by the MFCB. Reviewed on January 28th, 2001.


Some movies exist to make an important statement, or to shed light on a matter of great urgency. Some movies exist just to provoke a basic reaction -- to make us laugh, or cry, or scared silly. And then there are the movies which exist simply to be watched, that are so visually exhilarating that all other matters fall by the wayside. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is such a movie.

Director Ang Lee has made a film which is not, in principle, very demanding. It is a legend, taking place in the China of two hundred years ago, when more modern sensibilities had yet to take hold in the country. Being a legend, it weaves a simple, classical tale of love, honour and revenge, although it is been populated with characters of unusual perception. Even those who misguidedly loathe subtitled films ("Crouching Tiger" is in Mandarin) should have little to complain about here; although the dialogue certainly adds to the proceedings, they are not difficult to follow even without it.

The main attraction of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", though, is quite simply the amazing sights Lee arrays before us. He is aided in this endeavour by cinematographer Peter Pau, designer Tim Yip, and fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen (who has already dazzled audiences with his work on "The Matrix"). It is rare to encounter a movie which is such a feast for the eyes. The vistas of the Chinese landscape -- from lush valley to desert steppes -- are gloriously filmed, and the unique feel of early nineteenth century Beijing is captured impressively.

And then there are the fight scenes. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the only reason to see "Crouching Tiger" is because of the material arts sequences, but they are undoubtedly the pinnacle of its success. Lee and Yuen have managed to elevate fighting to the level of the finest ballet, a poetry of fist and foot. Whereas combat has become almost perfunctory in most action movies these days, here an evident combination of planning and inventiveness pays off wonderfully.

All of the fight sequences are great, but one in particular stands out in my mind. In it, the great Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chun-Yow Fat) and his young opponent, Jen Yu (the "hidden dragon" of the title, played by Zhang Ziyi), stand on branches atop tall trees, which sway as they parley with their weapons. (The martial artists in "Crouching Tiger" possess a number of superhuman abilities, the most striking of which is the ability to leap astonishing distances. It may sound far-fetched, but given the mythological trappings of the picture, it works nicely.) Despite their precarious circumstances, Li and Jen battle on, not just ignoring their unusual circumstances but in fact using the unlikely environment to their advantage.

This is the sort of scene, like the mindboggling opening shot of the Star Destroyer in "Star Wars" or Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" crying out Stella's name like a wounded animal, which sears itself instantly into the mind. So exquisite and fascinating is it to behold that it will not quickly be forgotten. Even more impressive, in this era of increasingly sophisticated technology, is the fact that Fat and Ziyi were really up there in the trees; computers were used only to erase the wires and harnesses from around them in post-production. This lends an authenticity to the scene which modern computer animation cannot yet reproduce.

The events which lead Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu to those treetops are not complicated. Li wishes to retire from active duty, despite the fact that he has never gained vengeance against Jade Fox, a duplicitous woman who slew his master years earlier. Li gives his ancient, powerful sword, Green Destiny, to his longtime friend and fellow mercenary Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh from "Tomorrow Never Dies"; she's the eponymous "crouching tiger") to deliver to a politician in Beijing who has been an ally to them. Not long after Shu Lien arrives in the city, however, the Green Destiny is stolen.

The culprit turns out to be Jen, the daughter of a minister who is destined to soon enter into an arranged marriage. Jen chafes at the restrictions placed on her future and longs for the life of the warrior. (She is a perfect counterpart to Shu Lien, who shares an unspoken love for Li Mu Bai which they can never consummate, and who wishes to settle down and lead a quieter life.) Jen is secretly the promising apprentice of Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), and when Li Mu Bai arrives in Beijing and learns of the theft of his blade, history may be doomed to repeat itself.

The visual majesty of "Crouching Tiger" is supported by several fine performances, with Yeoh a particular standout. Like any good legend, there is a pleasing variety in approach: despite all the melodrama and melee, Lee leaves room for humour, such as when Jen takes on an entire bar full of hostile warriors. And there is also an unmistakable vein of spirituality running throughout the film, as Lee seeks to examine the notion of identity -- one of the meanings of the title is a reference to aspects of one's own personality which can lie buried until finally coming to the fore.

If "Crouching Tiger" has its flaws, it is in terms of the storytelling, which is occasionally awkward. For example, in the middle of the movie is an extended flashback, revealing the origins of Jen's rebellion. As a self-contained entity, it's well-conceived, but it is an unwieldy fit at this point in the film, basically forcing the main action to come to a lengthy halt.

Regardless, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a real treat. And it is a film which absolutely has to be seen to be appreciated. Much as one picture is worth a thousand words, no amount of text could possibly come close to describing the majesty and beauty of its images.

Copyright 2001 Shannon Patrick Sullivan. Archived at The Popcorn Gallery, http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/movies/CrouchingTiger.html

_______________________________________________________________________ / Shannon Patrick Sullivan | "We are all in the gutter, but some of us \ | shannon@mun.ca | are looking at the stars." - Oscar Wilde | \___________________________|__________________________________________/ | Popcorn Gallery Movie Reviews www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/movies.html | | Doctor Who: A Brief History of Time (Travel) /drwho.html |

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