This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds
Sometime during the Qing dynasty, Li Mu-Bai (Chow Yun Fat), a reknowned Wudang warrior, meets up with his long-time friend, Yu Shu-Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and announces that he has decided to renounce his lifestyle. He therefore asks her to bring his sword, the legendary Green Destiny, to Beijing and entrust it to his friend Sir Tse. Having accomplished this task, Yu Shu-Lien meets with another guest of Sir Tse, a young Manchu aristocrat, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of the Governor of Yu, who is about to enter into an arranged marriage but seems uncharacteristically fascinated by Yu Shu-Lien and her world and life as a warrior. That night a thief breaks in, takes Green Destiny and flies away - almost literally - from stupefied guards although Yu Shu-Lien, alerted by the resulting commotion, takes chase and eventually fights it out with the thief, at which point she remarks that they are learned in the same Wudang style as Li Mu-Bai. As she's about to take the advantage over her opponent, a dart flies towards her from the roofs and the mysterious thief seizes the opportunity to escape. She and Li Mu-Bai, who has just arrived, start investigating and quickly realize that evidence leads them to the Governor of Yu's house. To complicate things further, Jade Fox, the woman who killed Li Mu-Bai's master, is rumored to be in town....
I'll always remember when I first saw that movie, about 10 years ago now. I was at university and had just discovered a brand new field: Asian history. At the time, at least where I live, we were only just on the eve of the Eastern Asian cultural wave reaching our shores, or rather, on the eve of it breaking the limited diffusion circle of geeks and other otaku. "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" certainly was the first Asian live movie to grace screens other that those of the local art-house theatres or the university movie club outside of festivals. The movie had drawn quite a bit of press and so we decided with a few of my friends to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about. That evening didn't start too well. Most of those around me started to groan when they realized the movie was, at that specific hour, not presented with French dubs but was instead in its original Mandarin version with French and German subtitles. Twenty minutes in and the groans were replaced by incredulous expressions and laughter as characters started to defy gravity in the chase at the top of Beijing's Forbidden City's roofs. But then laughter died too and as the story progressed, the audience fell silent with the exception of cheers after the now famous indoor duel and a few sniffles as the end credits rolled
That people got accustomed to the surreal prowesses of the main characters fairly quickly had no doubt to do with a movie that was released only a year prior, "The Matrix", with which CTHD shared the same action choreaographer, Yuen Wo-Ping. After getting over the initial surprise and the "weirdness" of seeing people climb three- or four-storey houses' external walls in two or three steps, it was difficult not to be seduced, or even awed, by this - at the time - still very much exotic but nonetheless somewhat familiar display. Moreover, Ang Lee was very clever in that two fights never look the same: the characters, their weapons and environments, but also the feelings of the opponents gives each a different flavor and, maybe even most importantly, allows them to become part of the narration rather than being interludes between characters' development and plot progression scenes (I shall come back to that in a little while)
Now I know some self-professed martial arts movies fanatics will want to chime in at this point that all that has been done before. And that for an martial arts film, it's actually quite mediocre - if it at all qualifies as a martial arts movie. But I think they miss the mark on both scores: for one, CTHD was a way for Ang Lee to do the movie of his dreams, that is a martial arts fantasy, and to pay homage to the films of his youth. It is particularly evident in the case of both the rooftop scene and the one in the bamboo forest (interestingly, the former can be linked to a similar scene in "Wing Chun", starring none other than Michelle Yeoh in the title role) and as an homage they work very well as, while they are not "new", they are extremely well put together. It is however true that, for a martial arts movie of this scope, you'd probably expect a lot more fighting. Actually, I would argue that the only full-fledged martial arts scene in the whole movie is the famous duel between between Yu Shu-Lien and Jen, but then we are talking about pure mouth-watering, jaw-dropping stuff
But then I would also argue that this is a martial arts movie only by style. Because Ang Lee being Ang Lee, it was inevitable that first and foremost, it would never be about fighting technics, about Wudan vs. Kung- fu, but rather about the characters, their emotions and their struggles with themselves and, in particular in the case of the women, with the rigidities of society ("Sense and Sensibility", anyone?). It is however to be noted that in this case, Li Mu-Bai too is victim to social expectations when it comes to his feelings for Yu Shu-Lien. In what I would consider a "real" martial arts film, the plot is there as a vehicle to the fighting skills, and also often to the virtues and philosophies behind those; in the case of CTHD, the fight scenes actually serve the plot in that they are often a way to express visually emotions the characters would not, or could not, express with words. And there is probably no better example of that than the bamboo forest scene, where the two protagonists' respective ease with which they move on the light bamboo branches reveals one's complete mastery of his emotions and serenity and the other's agitation and internal conflict
It is also a thing of beauty. Which can be said for just about every single frame for the almost two-hours duration: from the bird-eye view of the Forbidden City to the mist surrounding Mount Wudang, from the delicacy of some of the dresses (two months worth of sewing and embroidering each, according to Ang Lee!) to the amazing colors of the desert surrounding the cave of infamous thief Lo (Chang Chen), it is a visual feast (as well as an auditive one, being blessed by an outstanding score by Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma), yet it is never so much that you feel overwhelmed, that your senses can't process what is going on it anymore. Just like the fighting itself, it is all but a (beautiful) foil for the characters' story and emotions
And in this department, it must be one of the most touching stories I've witnessed in the last 10 years or so. In a sense, it is deceptively simple, a story of two star-crossed couples, of vengeance and of social constraints. Also, the narration itself is pretty straightforward yet the characters' development is everything but. Jen, in particular, could have been a character easy to hate, to despise as a "poor little rich girl", htoughtless and rash in her actions. But she is the character who goes through the most arduous emotional journey of all, expected to conform to the rigid rules that come with aristocracy, a life she obviously is not suited for and that would keep her away from the man she loves and the freedom she craves, as well as being ill-advised by her malevolent "nurse". She provides however a fantastic contrast to Li Mu-Bai and Yu Shu-Lien's very "grounded" characters, as does her relationship with Lo: in a way, they went where Li and Yu didn't dare to, and their displayed passion offers the perfect counterpoint to Li and Yu's imposed restraint.
It is not all gloom and doom though, and the movie rarely wallows in angst for very long: the fights of course, keeps the viewer's adrenaline pumping, and there are very funny moments almost all the way through: Master Bo who is yanked back by his own chain as he launch in an all out attack against Jade Fox and pretty much the whole scene at the restaurant are chief examples of that. Lo also provides much to smile about during a good part of the flashback happening in the desert and Li Mu-Bai's expression when Yu Shu-Lien intervenes as he's menacing Lo is priceless
As you may have guessed by now, I can only recommend that you see this movie (or watch it again if you had done so already). Of course, one can always lament that this is quite clearly a Chinese movie aimed at least in part at western audiences, and therefore not feeling completely authentically "Chinese". But while I can be pretty uptight about these things myself, I just can't bring myself to hold it against it, or even to care as, no matter how many times I watch it, I always find myself carried away, laughing, crying, and feeling just about every emotion in between
That to me, is the universal magic of cinema, regardless of its genre or where it comes from