Film Reviews

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON

By • Dec 22nd, 2000 •

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Rated PG-13; 119 minutes; released by Sony Pictures Classics; in Mandarin with subtitles

Feel like you’re not getting enough movie for your filmgoing dollar? Were you looking for more from Gladiator than Russell Crowe glowering and clanging swords for two hours? Did you feel cheated that The Perfect Storm played less like a movie than a CGI special effects reel? Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may be the film for you- as it switches wildly from one genre to another it’s lavish with action, spectacle, plot and star power.

Set in ancient China, Tiger is a Hong Kong-style martial arts movie, studded with spectacular fight scenes that emphasize balletic grace and magical-realistic jumping, spinning and flying (literally). But it’s also a “women’s picture” weepie and an old-style melodrama, complete with disguises, treachery, forbidden love and self-sacrifice. There’s some rough physical comedy in the mix, as well as truly spectacular scenery-it was shot all over China and showcases that vast country’s incredible contrasts, from windswept deserts to fog-enshrouded mountains to verdant forests.

The danger in offering such a cinematic horn of plenty is that the individual parts may overwhelm the film as a whole. It’s also somewhat difficult to respond to the characters as actual people when one scene has them quietly discussing their feelings and the next has them climbing walls and leaping over rooftops in ways that make Spider-Man look like a clumsy oaf.

Tiger is a major departure for director Ang Lee, best-known for smart, serious, character-driven films such as The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. I admire his ambitions, his skills and his willingness to confound expectations by doing something different in each film. I wonder, though, whether Tiger is too much of a stretch-whether it’s possible for anyone to combine epic, almost operatic themes with the down-and-dirty excitement of martial arts moviemaking, while still creating recognizable characters the audience can care about.

Given these challenges, Lee and his cast succeed more often than not. That may sound like faint praise but it isn’t meant to. Tiger can sweep an audience along, and it can surprise you-I never thought I’d enjoy, or be so fascinated by, the variations among the types of martial arts fighting that are displayed in the film. The editing, camerawork and stunts combine for effects that are literally breathtaking, and the actors don’t lose their characters even in the midst of slam-bang action.

The fighting scenes are so strong that they may be part of the problem. As you might expect if you’ve seen other Lee films, the overall pace is slow-he likes to take his time with the intricacies of relationships. While this pays off beautifully in some scenes, it also gave me enough time to consider the craziness and improbabilities of the plot.

I’ve avoided trying to summarize the plot because there’s just so much of it, and I don’t want to give away too many of its surprises (shame on you if you don’t figure out who is really who behind those masks quite soon anyway). Suffice it to say that Chow Yun Fat plays Li Mu Bai, a renowned martial arts master who is considering leaving the business. Michelle Yeoh, wonderfully grave and affecting, is Yu Shu Lien, herself an accomplished fighter. Li and Yu have had long-simmering romantic feelings that, for a variety of reasons (duty, honor, all that good stuff) they have never acted on.

Zhang Ziyi is fine as Jen Yu, a fiery young noblewoman about to be convenience-married but who longs for the freedom and adventure of the freelance warrior’s life. She is also secretly pining for the charismatic Lo (Chang Chen), a bandit from the Western provinces who kidnapped and “tamed” her several years before the movie’s action starts. And let’s not forget Jen’s sad-eyed governess (Cheng Pei Pei), who may or may not be the treacherous thief (and murderer of Li’s former master) Jade Fox.

Tiger is certainly different-not only from run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare but also from other martial arts films. Even if it doesn’t succeed in reaching all its goals, it’s a fascinating near-miss. And Ang Lee continues to be a filmmaker to watch.


Credits:
Directed by Ang Lee
Screenplay by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung

Cast:
Chow Yun Fat
Michelle Yeoh
Zhang Ziyi
Chang Chen

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