Director Ang Lee could have had himself a nice little chick flick with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It has an appealing love story, some heartfelt sentiment, and lush cinematography. Women are heroes. Even the villain is a woman. It’s a woman’s movie.
And then Lee decided, what the heck, why not add the most spectacularly, jaw-droppingly amazing martial-arts sequences ever committed to film? Why not, as long as we’re making a movie, blow everyone away with scenes of unbelievably fantastic movement that will amaze viewers without drawing attention to themselves? Why not just rewrite movie history?
Part of the cleverness of this Chinese-language film is that it is structured like a traditional kung fu movie for its first hour, with the fight sequences occurring in exactly the right spots — and then it shifts gears for the second half and turns into quite a strong little love story.
Through it all, of course, are those fights. More on those later.
The story is of Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) who wants to hang it up after years of fighting. He feels he has failed, as his master was killed by the devilish Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng) and he has never been able to avenge him; furthermore, he’s felt unsettled during his meditations lately. His sword, the Green Destiny, has spilled the blood of many foes, and now he wants to give it to his friend Sir Te (Sihung Lung) as a symbolic gesture.
He sends the sword to Sir Te by way of Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a fellow Wudan warrior with whom he has an unspoken and unresolved love interest. The sword is promptly stolen from Sir Te by a masked figure whom we discover to be wealthy young Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), who is about to be married against her will and seeks the kind of action and adventure that one cannot have as a tied-down housewife. Her mentor is none other than the Jade Fox.
Soon Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien are both on the trail of Jen and the Jade Fox. Jen, meanwhile, is trying to continue her forbidden romance with desert highwayman Lo (Chen Chang), and Jade Fox seems to have nothing but evil on her mind.
Part of the Wudan training is that it teaches its warriors to defy the laws of gravity; indeed, this behavior is the principal way of identifying that someone is a Wudan. Our first glimpse of it is when the sword is stolen, and Shu Lien sets out in pursuit of the masked figure who took it. It starts simply enough, with characters running up walls in a manner that gets our attention but doesn’t seem completely beyond the realm of possibility. Next, they’re leaping from one rooftop to another, their feet barely touching anything solid. A spectacular scene takes place later in the film, with Li Mu Bai and Jen fighting in the treetops, occasionally holding on to branches. By the end of the movie, they are literally flying.
Does it make sense? Of course not. Compare it to the Force in “Star Wars,” if you want, as the similarities are hard to miss; see it as a metaphor for freedom and happiness; do whatever it takes to help you buy into it. Or you can just sit there and wonder how Ang Lee pulled it off.
You’d expect a director to do a special effects shot and then seamlessly cut to another shot, allowing the actor to work with wires or a green screen as necessary and then to interact with other humans. Not Ang Lee, though. He’ll have Jen fly through the air, spin around like a top, land on the ground and immediately start beating someone up, all in one shot. The flying and spinning clearly involve some movie-making trickery; how, then, is he able to do that and regular non-magic things without cutting away?
I suspect a lot of the appeal here will be to people who notice things like that and are interested in the mechanics of film-making. Even for regular folks, though, it would be hard not to notice the effort that went into making it all seem so effortless. And even without the exhilarating action sequences, Michelle Yeoh’s powerful, stoic performance is a wonder to behold in itself. How fitting that, in a year of mediocre American films, a Chinese filmmaker would come along and remind us how it’s supposed to be done.
A (; )