Ever since I heard that Ang Lee was making a kung fu flick with Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, I’ve been dying to see the results. When the film gathered great buzz at the last Cannes festival, I got even more eager and through the year, as more and more people saw and praised it, my expectations grew bigger and bigger. Can a film possibly live up to so much hype? Usually, no, but this isn’t just any film: this is that rare movie that will satisfy both mass audiences looking for action and arthouse lovers in for a good story well told. Furthermore, this is a work of near genius which breaks the boundaries of its genre to reach moments of sheer beauty.
The story, as adapted from a Wang Du Lu’s novel (the 4th of a 5 book series) by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung, takes us into what seems like a realistic setting, early 1800s China, but it’s really a somehow different, fantastic universe where heroes and villains roam the land, adventure is at every corner, and it often comes down to kill or be killed. As the film begins, veteran Wu Tang trained mercenary Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) decides to go into retirement. He meets with long-time friend and partner Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), with whom he has also been entertaining a mutual but unconsummated attraction for years, and sends her off to Peking with his sword, the legendary 4 century old Green Destiny, to hang it up in the temple of Master Te. And then, maybe the two of them can find a quiet place and see what happens… But before Li and Shu can start mellowing out, the sword is stolen by a mysterious young woman (Zhang Ziyi) and they’re forced to spring back into action.
At that point, it feels like we’re in for the typical epic adventure, good guys versus bad guys, badabing badaboom. This impression comes off even stronger when we learn that the thief is a disciple of Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), the vile old woman who killed Li’s master year’s ago. “Now it’s personal” and all that bullshit, right? Well, not quite. The film is directed by acclaimed arthouse filmmaker Ang Lee, after all, and he wouldn’t just settle for the same old kung fu revenge story we’ve seen so many times. Hence, slowly but surely, the focus of the movie shifts to the young woman who stole the Destiny. She who at first was little more than a silent assailant in a ninja suit turns out to be the movie’s central character, for she is in fact Jen, the teenage daughter of Governor Yu (Li Fazeng). Set to engage in an arranged marriage, Jen longs for freedom, something all too elusive for a noble young girl. But she’s read about the adventurers running around and facing danger and since she was a kid she’s been fascinated with the Wu Tang lifestyle. Unfortunately, the strong woman who took her under her wing, Jade, is evil and corrupted. Shu Lien sees good in Jen, but will she be able to save her from succumbing to the dark side?
So there, the film is about more than just kung fu and revenge. Its plot is almost feminist in the way it promotes strong female figures against patriarchal oppression. Zhang Ziyi is a real revelation as Jen. Beautiful yet threatening, naive yet complex, tough yet sensitive, Jen is a very compelling and interesting character, and she sure can kick some ass! She’s great through the film, especially in the extended flashback sequence in which Jen’s comb is stolen by a desert thief known as Black Cloud (Chang Chen) and she gets real mad and chases him. What’s really cool about the scenes between Jen and Lo is how, even though they’re fighting like crazy, there’s all this sexual tension and you just know these two will end up together… Though with Jen’s arranged marriage looming by, she might not be able to be with the man she loves. This somehow mirrors the relation between Li and Shu, who have long been kept apart by their warrior’s oaths. This struggle between honor and desire is well conveyed by the restrained but very just performances of Yeoh and Yun-Fat, who communicate a lot of emotion without saying much.
Now, don’t go thinking this is a romance film. Some of it is, and some spirituality also works its way in, but nobody will deny that it’s the action sequences that really make this otherwise fine character drama so jaw-dropping and magical. It’s tempting to credit martial arts coordinator Yuen Wo Ping, but the fights here have a unique quality that wasn’t in Ping’s previous pictures. Maybe because he’s not actually an action director, Ang Lee brings grace and beauty to the fights, so much that they become more poetic than violent. See our heroes leaping up building, defying gravity, flying in the air, bouncing on rooftops, floating on branches high in trees… Then there’s all the elaborate, super fast swordplay which puts to shame any film with swordfights you’ve ever seen, and a lot of uber cool kung fu to top it off! And throughout, there’s this magical feel to the fighting scenes that makes them closer to the dancing numbers in old musicals than to the typical action flick.
More so, the film looks and sounds awesome: the cinematography is stunning and the score (by Tan Dun, with cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma) suits the action very effectively. The film only cost 15 millions, but it looks better and rocks harder than most 100 M$ Hollywood blockbusters, and it’s obviously a more intelligent film. It’s that all too rare movie that’s as artistically achieved as it is entertaining. If people can just overlook the fact that it’s in Mandarin with subtitles, this could be both a huge box-office hit and a major contender at the next Oscars. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is easily one of the best movies of 2000.