Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (review)

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Arthouse Action

(Best of 2000)

Do you remember your first movie love? (Mine was Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was 12.) It made you realize how powerful film could be, didn’t it? How you could get swept up in a world you never knew existed — and could only exist in the movies — and meet characters you never wanted to say good-bye to, ever. I never imagined I’d ever recapture that feeling of transport, of wondrous discovery — I figured it was a function of innocent, inexperienced childhood.

I was wrong. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will make you fall in love with film all over again. This is instantly one of the greatest adventure movies ever made, but it’s also a touching and tender story of love forbidden and denied, of loyalty and honor. This is an arthouse action film — it’s Merchant Ivory meets The Matrix. And if you thought Neo dodging bullets was a revelation, wait till you see what director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil) has up his sleeve.
Ancient China may be an exotic and alien historical-fantasy landscape to Westerners only because Chinese mythology and history is ignored by us, but that doesn’t make the world of Tiger any less romantic. Paper lanterns carried at arm’s length seem to float through the nighttime streets of two-millennia-distant Peking, a Peking whose protectors include warriors of the Wudan discipline, a spiritual brand of martial arts — think Jedi knights of ancient China. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is one of the greatest Wudan warriors of the time, but he is preparing for a retirement of meditation and study. He turns his sword, the fabled Green Destiny, over to his comrade in arms, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh: Tomorrow Never Dies), who in turn is to bring it to Mu Bai’s old friend, Sir Te (Lung Sihung), for safekeeping.

The Green Destiny is stolen, though, from Te’s quarters at the compound of Governor Yu (Li Fazeng), by a young masked thief possibly in the employ of the “poisoned dragon” Wudan warrior (think Dark-side Jedi) and criminal mastermind Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who, perhaps not coincidentally, murdered Mu Bai’s master many years before. The sword must be found, the thief unmasked, and Jade Fox brought to justice.

And, oh, the things these Wudan warriors can do! Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon left me literally breathless with astonishment at what I was seeing on the screen. Superfast reflexes make for fast and furious sword fights (and flying darts caught with chopsticks!), but these Jedi knights have other startling talents that I won’t reveal, in case you’re not already clued in. Suffice to say that when Shu Lien first battles and then chases the masked thief through the Peking night, it is perhaps the most viscerally thrilling thing I’ve ever seen on screen — Lee turns an action sequence into a dance that made me feel as if I were dancing along with it. And not just me. A theater packed full of hundreds of jaded film critics held its collective breath and burst into spontaneous applause at the end of Shu Lien’s chase… and the action sequences keep getting more spectacular and more imaginative throughout the film.

Intertwined with the action are the parallel stories of two women who appear very different at first and turn out to have much in common: Shu Lien and Governor Yu’s daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi). Shu Lien is a warrior with the grace and poise of an athlete, and she is free to be her own person. Jen — lovely, young, and royal — is a kept doll, taught to serve tea and paint beautiful calligraphy while wearing ponderous robes, all in preparation of her impending arranged marriage. But Jen, innocent and naïve, has a head full of books and heroes, and is envious of Shu Lien’s life. Both women are in love with men they cannot have, separated from those men, perhaps forever, by the different vows that bind them, the oaths of warriors and of marriage. It’s wonderful to see a film in which women are emotionally strong and physically tough, and run the gamut from good (Shu Lien) to evil (Jade Fox) to a confused muddle somewhere in the middle (Jen).

Satisfying both my indie jones, which craves character and emotion, and my innate love of big, sweeping, epic action, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Don’t deny yourself this experience on a big screen.

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