A 19-year-old newcomer and a middle-aged veteran steal the show from two legends of Hong Kong cinema
Director Ang Lee would not be an obvious first choice to direct a Hong Kong martial arts film, even at a time when the genre is practically dead and thus ripe for resurrection by a highly regarded craftsman like Lee. His previous films – Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm are two – are careful, thoughtful works but also slow and stately to the point of torpor, traits that seem inimical to the whole HK aesthetic as seen in the work of megastars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li; producers and directors like Tsui Hark and John Woo; and films that cover a vast range of styles from the genderbending histrionics of the Swordsman series (starring the queen of HK androgyny, Brigitte Lin) to the homoerotic bloodbaths of Woo (Hard-Boiled, The Killer) to the sweet everyman epics of Jackie Chan.
Lee’s new film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is being marketed as both a loving homage and a redemption of the alleged excesses of the HK martial arts movie, a questionable approach since excess – in the larger-than-life characters, stylized violence, and dazzling shifts of tone – is a primary lure of these films. In Lee’s words, “People tend to look down on the genre. Some may have thought it strange that I could just drop what I normally do and make something like a B-movie. And as I was doing it, there was no escape. I had to bring in drama, I had to bring in women, I had to bring in beauty and whatever I feel added quality to it. It became an Ang Lee movie.”
The good news is that the attitude behind such patronizing statements – drama, women, and beauty are hardly rare in HK films – is only partly in evidence in this “Ang Lee movie, ” in the film’s tedious, cliché romantic sequences. When Lee (or was it a gifted second-unit director?) focuses on the martial-arts sequences, the effect is breathtaking indeed and deserving of all the accolades the film is receiving.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is based on a pre-World War II novel about characters who (in spite of Lee’s protests of originality) will be quite familiar to fans of HK’s golden age films. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is a legendary martial artist whose attempts to find enlightenment have left him disillusioned. He gives away his famous sword, the Green Destiny, to signal a move into a new, nonviolent life. His courier is Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), another well-known fighter who’s been pining away for him for years. Shu Lien becomes friendly with the aristocratic young Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is secretly a superior swordswoman, the lover of the desert bandit Lo (Chang Chen), and a disciple of the vicious middle-aged female criminal Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei). From this setup, the film details the theft of the Green Destiny, the romantic and political intrigues that ensue, and the major characters’ life quests: Jen for love and power, Li Mui Bai for peace, Shu Lien for Li Mui Bai, Jade Fox for revenge against all men, and Lo for Jen.
The film has a muted, elegant look that works in its favor to transport the viewer to its setting of ancient China, meticulously recreated. But this rich pictorialism has a down side: Lee seems to be so in love with his compositions and conceits that the film slows to a crawl in some sequences. A particular offender in this regard is a seemingly endless diversion in the desert, where the love affair between Lo the bandit and Jen the captured lady begins. Lee exploits the bleak beauty of this setting (shot in the Gobi desert and the Taklamakan Plateau north of Tibet) but eventually loses the viewer in the interminable love scenes.
More successful – indeed, the film’s major draw – are the stunningly executed fight scenes. No expense was spared in rendering these magical sequences, with characters scampering up buildings, bounding across roofs, and flying through treetops. Unlike some HK films where the viewer gets lost in a battle (not necessarily a bad thing), Crouching Tiger keeps all the details clear, giving full play to these skilled performers’ leaps and thrusts and always interspersing high-angle shots for context. There’s a mix of the fantastic and the visceral in these scenes that should satisfy fans of both styles. Michelle Yeoh executes her typical stunningly economical moves, while hefty middle-aged Cheng Pei Pei is her opposite, relying more on brute strength and raw power to conquer her enemies. Most impressive is Zhang Ziyi, a marvel at only 19 (when the film was shot two years ago). Her dazzling gymnastics put her immediately in the company of legendary predecessors in the field like Angela Mao Ying.
Crouching Tiger hedges its bets by featuring Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, icons of the golden age of HK cinema. But their characters are probably the least interesting in the film. Chow’s Li Mu Bai never transcends the formulaic dispirited hero wandering pathetically through a world he doesn’t feel part of. The glorious Michelle Yeoh is mostly decorative, full of winsome glances and stony stares but finally unaffecting. The film ultimately belongs to Zhang Ziyi, brilliant as the schizoid Jen, and, in her unfortunately limited screen time, to Cheng Pei Pei as Jade Fox. The latter, a veteran of 1970s and ‘80s HK martial arts films, is far from the smooth, sleek young heroines of many HK movies. With her hefty figure, ravaged face, and palpable desperation as she feels Jen slipping from her grasp, she gives the film an unexpected poignancy and power.