Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – 2000
This was an incredible movie. On the surface you might think it is just a martial arts action film, and it certainly has that element. But it also has drama, romance, and a really cool plot. It had a great cast of actors, some pretty phenomenal special effects, and spectacular cinematography. I’ve seen the film a few times previously and am enthralled with it every time I watch it.
The film was an epic, which I love. Chou Yun-fat played Master Li Mu Bai, a monk who has attained the rank of Master of the Wudang fighting discipline. It is a mystical art that relies heavily on spiritual enlightenment and calmness of soul. It gives those who master its secrets supernatural powers like heightened speed, lightning reflexes, and a kind of flight. Li Mu Bai has in his possession a 400 year old sword called the Green Destiny. The sword seems almost magical in its strength and sharpness.
Li Mu Bai is getting on in years and is tired of being a warrior. He wants to retire, even going so far as giving up his vendetta of revenge against a woman known as the Jade Fox who killed his former teacher. His close friend, Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh, is also an accomplished practitioner of the Wudang fighting style. The two have a history that is hinted at, but never fully explained. They are in love with each other, but because of social and career oriented ties and obligations, they have never been able to openly declare their love.
Li Mu Bai asks Yu Shu Lien to give the Green Destiny to a friend in Beijing as a gift. While there Yu Shu Lien meets Jen Yu, played by Zhang Zi Yi, and her governess, played by Cheng Pei-pei. Jen Yu is the beautiful young daughter of a governor who is to be married to a man she does not love. She longs for freedom and feels trapped in a life she does not want. Soon after the two women meet, the Green Destiny is stolen by a masked thief, and the exciting martial arts fighting begins.
It was like nothing I have ever seen. It was almost as if the combatants had Jedi powers, flying up walls, floating over rooftops, leaping across courtyards, and walking on water. The battles were like those in the Matrix, but faster and more intricate. There were no slow motion cuts, no 360 degrees camera shots. Just fast and exciting martial arts fighting with both hand-to-hand combat, and a wide array of cool weapons.
We soon learn that it was Jen Yu who stole the sword, and her governess is none other than the Jade Fox, her teacher in the Wudang fighting style. With the object of his revenge so close, Li Mu Bai resumes his hunt for her, but soon learns that Jen Yu is something of a child prodigy in the art of Wudan fighting, surpassing her teacher. Li Mu Bai knows she has the potential to be the best fighter ever, given proper training.
The last player in the drama is Lo “Dark Cloud”, played by Chang Chen. He is the prince of thieves who rules the desert. A flashback sequence reveals how he had once raided a caravan and stole Jen Yu’s comb. She chases him into the wild desert to get it back, and the two end up falling hopelessly in love. Now he has returned to claim Jen Yu before she marries.
The film’s drama was wonderfully done. It transcended the film’s action sequences and really made the movie something special. The two romances, Lo and Jen Yu’s and Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien’s are each unique and were beautifully played. The film’s most powerful moment was its climax when Li Mu Bai finally kills the Jade Fox, but is stuck with a poisoned dart in the process. It is revealed that the Jade Fox’s target was actual Jen Yu, so he has the satisfaction of knowing that he had saved her live, but before an antidote can be created, he dies in Yu Shu Lien’s arms. It was a sad and intense moment.
And as I mentioned, the cinematography was incredible. The beautiful and exotic scenery, the fighting locations, and the exquisite costumes were perfect. I especially liked the fight in bamboo forest. And it was clear that the actors really understood their characters giving them depth and dimension. I especially loved Li Mu Bai. Chou Yun-fat was wonderful as the deeply spiritual monk whose masterful fighting always displayed a calm exterior and a centered interior. He was so perfect for the part.
The movie really had no weaknesses. It was a work of art from beginning to end. Director Ang Lee really knew what he was doing. He brought sophistication and spiritualism to a film style that is largely unknown in the United States. Martial arts films, at least in my own limited sphere of experience, have always been amusing kitch. They were vaguely interesting, somewhat campy, bordering on goofy at times, but largely forgettable. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was done right, and it turned it into something very cool. This was a great, great movie.