A young Chinese warrior steals a sword from a famed swordsman and then escapes into a world of romantic adventure with a mysterious man in the frontier of the nation.A young Chinese warrior steals a sword from a famed swordsman and then escapes into a world of romantic adventure with a mysterious man in the frontier of the nation.A young Chinese warrior steals a sword from a famed swordsman and then escapes into a world of romantic adventure with a mysterious man in the frontier of the nation.
In closeup, we see the rough-hewn, heavy wooden wheels of a peasant cart. They nestle in deep ruts worn into the stone paving blocks of a roadway entering a gated city. The cart rumbles on, its wheels fitting perfectly into the grooves worn by unspoken centuries of just such passing wagons...in one image we see how tradition creates its own paths, how contemporary reality is fabricated to fit such traditions... The camera rises, we see an almost impossible panorama of Peking, the Forbidden City spreading out before us like an Oz extending to the horizon.
What a film this is: a superb action adventure romance with terrific acting and a much-welcome heart underlying the technical superiority.
"Crouching Tiger...", I am told, is representative of a specific literary/cinematic genre in China: Wu Xia...the wizard/warrior piece...magic and martial arts blended. I'm not familiar with the form, but the world portrayed here is a breathtakingly fantastical one. The story is putatively set in 19th century China, but it could be anywhere, anywhen. It is a place of high honor and deep feelings, a place where people are bound by traditions and held captive by their forms. It is also a place of wild and mythic landscapes...from stark desert (thought nowhere do we get that featureless, wide-screen linear horizon seen in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia!") to magic misty green mountains with deep dark lakes and steeply cascading streams that come braiding, tumbling down the rockslide heights. High, reedy bamboo forests wave, wondrous, in sighing winds.
In this world people may do amazing things. The flying in this movie -- properly called "wire work" in film terms -- is fantastic. This technique, of course, was not invented by the Wachowski's, but the choreographer of "Crouching Tiger...", Woo-ping Yuen, also staged the wire-fights of "Matrix." Here, the ability of our warrior heros and villains to climb walls, to leap to the rooftops and soar from building to building -- not to mention engaging each other in aerial combat that soars from the peak of a mountain top to the rocks of a mountain stream in a single take -- or to duel on the very tips of dipping, waving bamboo trees -- looks almost plausible, just over the border of the possible, at least. The whole packed-in audience at the big theater at the advanced screening at Pipers Alley in Chicago burst into spontaneous applause several times throughout...
At other moments, I found myself in weepy transport. As I think of the fight in the treetops, right now, I become drippy -- tingly of eye and sinus.
Apart from all else, this is grand storytelling! It has passion, love, revenge...it expresses deep need and longing.
And, yes, the woman are the action hearts of the film! Michelle Yeoh is wonderful...but I've been in love with her for years. Here, she is more mature, quieter, wiser than in any role I've seen her in. Her performance is strong and moving, her face registering, magically, a range of conflicting emotions, hidden secrets, crouching angers, all at once. In acting training we were always told you can't do that. She does it.
Chow Yun Fat, too...I've been a fan of his since I first discovered John Woo's Hong Kong crime thrillers...is the best I've ever seen, as well...magnificent in his silences. Strength without cruelty.
The center of the film is a girl who looks to be about 15! Ziyi Zhang whose date of birth is given as 1979. Zhang is from Beijing, China, and has only one other film credit. She is remarkable. Her story is the film's binding element. And this newcomer holds it together! Holding her own with Yeoh and Chow in both dramatic material and in the balletic martial pas des dieux's that frame the conflicts between characters. She is the "Luke Skywalker" of the piece, if you will...though "Crouching Tiger..." has everything the "Star Wars" saga aspires to: excitement, thrills and magic. Here however, technical fireworks are wrapped heart and deeply resonant spirit. Elements Lukasfilm wanted to have, but which it succeeded in providing only in the most self-conscious way.
By the way: this is an action film, almost uniquely without violence...or, rather, the violence is so stylized, so removed into some mystical realm, that it almost disappears into dance. There is, I believe, only one small splash of blood on-screen. Typically, I don't like that -- figuring that if you're going to do a film where violence is part of it all, where action advances plot, let's have it full-bore, the "Full Peckinpaw," if you will. Here, however, this stylization works beautifully with action sequences that take the breath away and inspire a sense of awe, rather than simply leave you white-knuckled and sweaty.
There are those who will grumble that Jackie Chan (another favorite of mine) does it all for real, without wires and tricks. True enough... But here that exuberance of motion is in service of a grand story and strong characters who carry worthwhile emotional burdens!
I won't be able to wait for the DVD, and will probably see it again, perhaps see it twice before it hits the home-market.
My recommendation: Just go see it.
- Jan 16, 2001