"CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON" (Wu hu zang long) Reviewed by R.L. Strong
CAST: CHOW YUN-FAT, MICHELLE YEOH, ZHANG ZIYI, CHANG CHEN, LUNG SIHUNG, CHENG PEI PEI, LI FA ZENG, GAO XIAN SCREENPLAY BY JAMES SCHAMUS WANG HUI LING TSAI KUO JUNG ACTION CHOREOGRAPHY BY YUEN WOO-PING DIRECTED BY ANG LEE
2000 Rated PG-13 for Martial art violence and mild sexuality. Mandarin Language with English Subtitles. 119 minutes. Spherical Panavision (2.35:1)
There is a genre that many Western audiences are only minutely familiar with. Most refer to these films as Kung Fu or Martial Art films. But the actual genre is "Wuxia Pian" (loosely translated as Martial Chivalry). These films can be seen as the Chinese equivalent of the American Western, in that the stories are usually based on either real characters, real events in History, or real historical periods. Some of these films have portrayed such heroic figures as Wong Fei-Hong ('Drunken Master', 'Once Upon a Time in China'), one of China's most famous heroes, Fong Sai-yuk, Monk San-te and many more.These characters and stories are as intrinsic to China as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson are to Americans.
To a Western audience, the Wuxia Pian film is patently unbelievable. Its hero's (and villains) can seemingly fly over walls, control the elements around them, and take incredible punishment and continue battling. However, these films have developed a large following here stateside, so much so that they cannot be considered cult films. Such films as "Enter the Dragon", "Drunken Master", "Master Killer", "Heroes of the East", and "Iron Monkey" are considered benchmarks in both their genre and in cinema, grafting exciting characters onto simplistic melodramatic tales of revenge and honor. Their action (martial art) sequences are praised with all the awe usually reserved for a brilliant special effect (think King Kong on the Empire State building) or a marvelous shot (any scene from 'Citizen Kane'). With the release of Sony Classics "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Western audiences can now fully embrace the genre, reveling in its marvelous action and succumb to its subtle romantic charms.
The story begins with famed Martial Artist Li Mu-bai (Chow Yun-fat) arriving at the Yuan Security Compound. There he meets up with his long time friend Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh). Mu-bai asks Shu-lien to take his sword, the legendary Green Destiny (named for its intricate Jade handle and green tinted blade), to Beijing and deliver it to Sir Te (Lung Sihung), a respected leader, and family friend. Mu-bai explains that after many years of combat, he wishes to follow another path in life.
As Shu-lien leaves for Beijing, Mu-bai returns to Wudan Mountain, the famed training ground for the most skilled warriors to pay his respects to his late Master. The Master died at the hand of the notorious Jade Fox, a former concubine determined to gain control of the martial world and rule over men the way she once was. As Shu-lien delivers the sword to Sir Te, the elder gentleman is reluctant to accept the gift. He agrees only to act as the sword's custodian until such time that Li Mu-bai would reclaim it.
Shu-lien is invited to stay after her travel from the Yuan Compound. As the sword is being placed in the main building, Shu-lien meets Yu Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of Governor Yu (Li Fa-zeng) a leading politician of Beijing. Jen's seeming innocents endears herself to Shu-lien, who sees in the young girl, the life that she never had. Jen is apprehensive about her upcoming arranged marriage. Shu-lien and her choice to follow Giang Hu (martial arts life) fascinate Jen. Shu-lien is taken aback by Jen's fascination, and she tells the young bride to be that she is lucky to have someone to love.
That night, a masked thief steals the Green Destiny. After handily defeating Bo (Sir Te's chief security guard played by Gao Xian), the thief is confronted by Shu-lien. The battle is frenetic and breathtaking, as the two combatants weave and dodge each other's attack. Shu-lien realizes that the thief is using techniques taught only at Wudan Mountain, but only at a novice's level. Still, the thief is able to escape.
Suspicions run high throughout Beijing. Police Inspector Tsai (Wang De Ming) and his daughter arrive searching for Jade Fox, who murdered Tsai's wife. Shu-lien though has her own suspicions about Jen. Visiting with Jen, Shu-lien tells the young girl about her engagement to member of Wudan Mountain. His death while protecting Li Mu-bai, left Shu-lien alone, unable to dishonor her fiancÚ's memory. When Li Mu-bai finally arrives in Beijing, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) reveals herself, desperate to end the dynasty of Wudan Mountain and kill Li Mu-bai.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is sumptuous. The Cinematography by Peter Pau is awe-inspiring, capturing some of China's most unique locations. This has the cinematic level of David Lean in its vast landscapes and imperial cities. Peter Pau has long been considered one of Hong Kong cinema's; nay the World cinema's most inventive and insightful photographers. This film cements that claim. The incorporation of visual effects only imbues the film with another level of grandeur, bringing to mind such vintage cinematic classics as "Gone with the Wind" and "Portrait of Jennie" wherein the actual locations could not be recreated without the use of visuals.
The script by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung is lyrical in its pacing. This is not your teenager's punch and kick-em film. This is a story that is about love and love lost. What the Chinese call Tao, meaning the way, or the path; is an enigmatic search. As Li Mu-bai wishes to give up fighting for another life, he is searching for his Tao, as is Shu-lien who has fallen in love with the heroic man but is unable to express it due to societal constraints and her own sense of honor. The same can be said of all of the characters in the film, but only Jen has the potential of finding her true path.
The performances are top notch. Chow Yun-fat holds sway over the film simply by his presents. His Li Mu-bai is a composed and courteous man. Erudite and corporal, he embodies all the best qualities that a man can have. Chow Yun-fat's polished performance is the anchor of the film, keeping the drama from spiraling off into a maudlin soap opera. Michelle Yeoh gives what may be the best performance of her career. Her Yu Shu-lien is a complex character, torn between her love for a man that she can never be with and her duty to the Giang Hu life. Ms. Yeoh gives such a grand performance that we can feel her heartbreaking in every scene she shares with Chow Yun-fat.
But the stellar performance is from Zhang Ziyi as Yu Jen. Having only one other film to her credit (Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home"), Ms. Zhang steals the film from her two seniors in what must be considered the breakout performance of the year. Yu Jen is a fiercely independent young woman, fighting against a society that would marry her off to a man she does not know. Her lot in life is more than bearing children and having her choices made for her. When she finds her true love (Dark Cloud/ Lo played by Chang Chen), she is as torn as Shu-lien, for the same societal pressures apply to her. It is through Zhang Ziyi that we can see how these pressures can lead to bad, even dangerous choices.
The rest of the cast is equally up to the task. One grand surprise is Cheng Pei-pei, Hong Kong's first action actress. Her career began in the early 1960's in some of the Shaw Brothers early kung fu films. Her notoriety here in the West came with the discovery of her performance in King Hu's "Come Drink with Me" and "Golden Swallows" in the late 60's. Cheng Pei-pei has long been one of Hong Kong cinema's most revered actresses of action films and her inclusion here as the villainous Jade Fox is sublime.
Director Ang Lee's monumental task of creating a Martial epic is in keeping with his style. There is a lyricism here that belays its formulaic foundation. Each martial art fight sequence (staged and choreographed by the renowned Yuen Woo-ping of "The Matrix" and "Fist of Legend") is more spectacular and emotional than the proceeding one. Similarly, each successive battle takes up less time, becoming an expression of the emotional conflict between the characters and themselves. The emotional drama plays out almost like a metronome, ticking minutely in the background almost subliminally. But it is always there, and its payoff is both profound and enigmatic. Much like the Tao is.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a loving tribute to a style of film that most Westerners have not seen before. But for those adventurous enough, the rewards here are many. A film that plays out neither as a feminist drama nor as a chauvinistic one, but one that presents both views as being equally correct. It's all a matter of choice and Tao. And that makes this brave and poetic film one of this year's best.
The audio tracks are equally well defined, with the original Mandarin track being (for us purists) the definitive track, though the English dub is equally well mannered and mixed. The Dolby Digital (5.1) Mandarin track is incredibly robust with sumptuous separation and depth. Surround effects are ample (especially during the action sequences), and Tan Dan's haunting score comes through in a way that fully enhances and enriches the film. Sub-woofer response is excellent, and heart pounding.
As for the dubbed versions (for those that are interested), this is possibly the best job of dubbing since "Life is Beautiful," capturing the essence of the dialogue and characters without resorting to the usual standard of dubbing for Hong Kong films. Though the leads did not perform their own voice work on the English track, the actors chosen do a fine job of matching the timbre of both Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. The French dub is fine, though not as finely matched. Subtitles are available only in English and French, a shortsighted choice by not including a Spanish or Chinese track (Chinese languages are all written the same, but many dialects are spoken differently), and Spanish is much more prominent a language in the U.S. than French.
Supplemental include a nice commentary by Director Ang Lee and co-screenwriter / Producer James Schamus. The commentary is rather haphazard, with both men talking over one another, leaving several thoughts or comments uncompleted. That caveat aside, the commentary is insightful and gives a good sense of how the artists were approaching their tale. A 15 minute behind the scenes piece that originally aired on the Bravo network, an interview with Michelle Yeoh that covers much the same ground as the Bravo piece, a short photo gallery, and an abridged filmography for the cast.
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