THE STORY – In 19th century Qing Dynasty China, a warrior (Chow Yun-Fat) gives his sword, Green Destiny, to his lover (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver to safe keeping, but it is stolen, and the chase is on to find it. The search leads to the House of Yu where the story takes on a whole different level.
THE CAST – Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Lang Sihung & Cheng Pei-pei
THE TEAM – Ang Lee (Director, Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus & Tsai Kuo-jung (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
Ang Lee was not an obvious choice to helm a sprawling martial arts epic. The Taiwanese filmmaker had made his name on intimate, small-scale dramas like “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “The Ice Storm” (1997), so the odds that he would be able to pull off a genre that stretches entirely different artistic muscles were slim at best. However, this incongruous marriage of styles makes “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) such a triumph.
Lee effectively brought the intimacy and emotional depth he showcased in his earlier films to a film that boasted dazzling action set pieces. He infused characters that were typically one-dimensional with a gravitas that informed each of their victories, as well as each of their failures. It may sound cliche to state it as such now, but he elevated the wuxia genre in such an undeniable fashion that the film managed to crossover and became a hit with western audiences.
Let’s break down the components that make “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” such an effective film two decades later. For one, its premise is simple, and its McGuffin is ingenious. Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) gives his legendary sword, Green Destiny, to his longtime friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), but the sword gets stolen before Yu can secure it. She launches an investigation into the mysterious thief and unravels a vendetta against Li that goes back years.
In a typical wuxia story, Li would be the protagonist. He’s cool under pressure, famed for his efficiency and mastery in combat, and played by one of Asia’s biggest stars. That’s not what “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” does. Instead, Li is posed as a supporting character, a man who has spent his life in the service of his craft and is finding that he’s unsatisfied with what it has yielded. The character disappears for long stretches, but the subversion of a more traditionally heroic path lingers throughout as a clue that the film has more on its mind than one might expect.
The clever wrinkles continue with the characterization of the aforementioned thief, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi). She’s introduced as the daughter of a rich and powerful man who has nary a reason to worry about her future. The more Yu unravels the Green Destiny, however, the more it becomes evident that Jen is so much more. A lengthy flashback sheds light on a forbidden romance that had occurred years prior, and we discover that she has been studying the Wudang manual and is preternaturally gifted for combat.
Now, this is no surprise for those of you who have seen the film, and those who are watching for the first time will likely be able to put the clues together (little is done to hide Jen’s eyes under her mask). Once again, though, the dramatic exploration of action is what makes the film so unique. The combat scenes between Yu and Jen, or Jen and Li, manage the rare feat of furthering the story by the time they are finished. They serve the same function as dance numbers in a musical, which is to say, they articulate feelings that cannot be expressed through words.
Taken from a purely cinematic standpoint, they’re awesome too. Lee had never really shown a propensity for action, and yet, he managed to stage some of the most beautiful and surreal pieces of genre filmmaking that have ever been released. The fight in the bamboo forest is iconic for a reason; it looks unlike anything else and was done practically (!) to boot. There’s also the barroom brawl, which sees Jen take out dozens of male attackers and basically inspires the entire final act of “Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003). A version of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with lesser actors would have still been worth seeing, but the staggeringly high caliber we get here ensures that we aren’t simply waiting around until the next fight.
Chow Yun-fat offers up some of the most nuanced work to date as Li. There’s very little the character actually gets to play outwardly, so much of it falls on the gravitas of the actor, and Chow delivers. He’s matched and surpassed, in some ways, by his female co-stars. Michelle Yeoh recently scored her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress for “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Still, a rewatch of any of her scenes in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” proves that she should have been in the awards mix decades earlier. She puts on a masterclass of unspoken emotion as Yu, a woman bound by duty yet burns with passion for the life she could have had. A performance as interior as this could easily come across as one-note, but never for a second does it feel as though Yeoh is phoning it in. If it’s not her best, it’s damn close.
The expression “star-making performance” almost feels like an understatement when it comes to Zhang Ziyi. Her turn as Jen, a woman who seeks untethering from tradition, is mesmerizing from the word go. There’s an intensity that’s barely under the surface when she puts on the facade of the demure heiress, and getting to see it come out during the combat scenes is repeatedly satisfying. So much of the emotional weight of the film weighs on her and the youthful mistakes she makes that it’s a testament to Zhang’s innate magnetism that we continue to root for her.
Looking for flaws in a film this lovingly and meticulously crafted is not fun, but a few do jump out. Structurally, there are few lulls within “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and motivations can sometimes be unclear when a character is introduced briefly and then banished for the next forty minutes. There’s also the extended flashback sequence in the middle of the film, which functions beautifully as its own short film but really slows down the rest of the narrative. One is left to wonder whether breaking up the flashback and returning to it intermittently would have given the film a tighter pace.
Flaws aside, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a dazzling accomplishment that has aged like wine. The combat scenes are among the best in their genre, but so too are the performances, the character arcs, and the clever deconstruction of familiar tropes. Lee managed the rare feat of elevating a genre while preserving its strengths, and that singular achievement makes it his finest hour as a filmmaker.