erik lundegaard


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is what Hong Kong film fans have been waiting for: a martial arts movie for adults.

Written by:
James Schamus
Wang Hui-Ling
Tsai Kuo Jung

Directed by:
Ang Lee

Chow Yun Fat
Michelle Yeoh
Zhang Ziyi
Chen Chang
Lung Sihung
Chen Pei-pei
Li Fazeng

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Editing
Best Foreign Film
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Best Original Score
Best Song

"When it comes to emotions, even great heroes can be idiots."

Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) calls it "a kind of dream of China," and he's exactly right. It's mythic fantasy, centering — as in Arthurian legend — on impossible love and a magic sword.

The movie is based on the fourth book of a five-part novel by Wang Du Lu (1909-1977). A great Taoist warrior, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), returns abruptly from seclusion because in his meditation he "came to a place of endless sorrow." One suspects the sorrow is related to his love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), but this remains unexpressed. Instead, having decided to follow a more peaceful path, he asks Shu Lien to deliver his sword, the legendary, 400 year-old "Green Destiny," to a family friend, Sir Te in Beijing. Meanwhile he travels to Wudan Mountain, the site of a Taoist martial arts training ground, to pay respects to his late Master, killed years earlier by the criminal Jade Fox.

In Beijing, Sir Te is also hosting Governor Yu and his family, including a daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who is about to be wed. Jen has dead eyes and a small baby's mouth, and she professes envy for Shu Lien's warrior freedom. That evening the "Green Destiny" sword is stolen by a masked figure (obviously Jen) who is chased over the rooftops by Shu Lien.

Most martial arts fans might expect Shu Lien to kick some butt here — it's Michelle Yeoh, after all — but she's frustrated in her attempts, and the fight is of the magical, wire-reliant variety, where those who know "the way" can almost fly. At times this looks a bit silly — their running reminded me of a young Clark Kent racing a train in 1978's Superman — but the fights are choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, director of Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, who knows his business as well as anyone. Plus, instead of the exaggerated sound effects of most action movies, these characters jump and land as noiselessly as cats, which adds to the film's whisperish dream quality.

The plot is complicated by the return of Jade Fox, who is pursued by a policeman and his daughter. But the film only truly comes alive with the return of Li Mu Bai. He is more noble, and fights better and with more economy, than anyone else. Put it this way: he's really, really cool, and it's unfortunate that he isn't in the film more. Instead director Ang Lee focuses on Jen Yu — including a long flashback concerning her tempestuous affair with a Mongol bandit named Dark Cloud. The focus seems odd. In Chow and Yeoh you have two of the most popular actors in the world (Zhang is a relative newcomer), and their characters are more noble than Jen, who is petulant, disrespectful, and, ultimately, the villain. To compare it with one of his earlier films: Li and Shu Lien are sense and Jen is sensibility, and while the suffering nobility of the former can get old, the scattershot quality of the latter is just as problematic.

Still, this is one gorgeously-photographed film that makes the most of its Chinese landscapes. A late fight sequence, amid swaying treetops, hasn't left my mind.

Watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is like entering Ang Lee's exquisite dream of China, filled with excitement, tragedy, and derring-do. Not many moviegoers will want to wake up from such a dream.

—December 20, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard