Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:
An Evening At The Academies
by Craig Reid
Wow 4 Academy Awards for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; best foreign film, best cinematography, best musical score and best art design. What's wrong with this picture? First of all, before I get going on things, I must adamantly admit that I enjoyed watching CROUCHING TIGER, and I'm a big fan of Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat and Yuen Woo Ping. And, Ang Lee has definitely proved himself as one of Hollywood's premiere foreign directors. But, 4 academy awards?
In as much as I think that it was fair and it gives Chinese filmmakers and film authentic credibility in the eyes of the Western moviegoers, I also feel it was tossing in a few bones. Let's be honest, throw away your critic hats and discard all that stuff about cinematic sensibilities and colorful palates. Why did anyone watch this film? Certainly not for the music or sets. Also, with all the nominations it received (10 total, including best director, best film, best adapted screenplay, best film editing, best original song and best costume) and its Golden Globe nominations and awards, none of them had anything to do with the actors. We all watched the film for the action. By the way, was it me or did anybody else notice that through all the acceptance speeches nobody gave any kind of acknowledgement to Yuen Woo Ping? Pity on that, because after all there is the real core to the film's success. Admittedly, Peter Pao pulled off some wonderful photography, but his work on BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR is better and on 150th of the budget. Now that's mind boggling.
But on the other hand, we have to realize who is doing all the voting here and who is writing the reviews that the general movie audience is reading. Basically, people who know crap about Chinese film. Because if they did, they could list at least 50 other Chinese films that are better. It's comparable to saying BATTLEFIELD EARTH is the greatest science fiction film of all time, unaware that classics like BLADERUNNER, STAR WARS and ALIEN ever existed. Furthermore, to anyone that has seen the old Shaw Brothers movies or the fant-asia films of the 1980's and early 90's, to summarize CROUCHING TIGER, "Been there, done that, seen it, nothing new." Even Michelle Yeoh was honest enough to admit that the film was nothing new. It's the same sort of thing that real Hong Kong film fans said about the action in MATRIX, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, BLADE and X-MEN. But let's face it, to the average American filmgoer or even film critic, this stuff is new to them, something they've truly never seen before.
Case in point. I'm attending this all-media screening (Oct. 2000) for CROUCHING TIGER and the pair behind me (one from LA Times, the other from TV Guide) are loudly name dropping. One then begins boasting he's an expert on Hong Kong film saying he's seen every Jackie Chan film, starting with RUMBLE IN THE BRONX and that Jackie didn't compare to Keanu in the MATRIX. I was literally thinking, "Lord, just shoot me now." Then he went on to mention that a friend of his at the "Times" in New York said that CROUCHING TIGER is simply stuff you've never seen before. And yes, even old respected reliables like Roger Ebert and Rex Reed were touting CROUCHING TIGER as the greatest film of all time. Bandwagon doesn't begin to describe the feeding frenzy, a frenzy woefully lacking teeth. And although the film has grossed around $110 million in America, did anyone bother to check that the film bombed in Asia? And what does that say?
For those that came in late, CROUCHING TIGER is based on part of a multi-volumed, several thousand paged novel written by the Beijing born Wang Du Lu in the early 1930's. It's a tale of defiance, duplicity, righteousness and destiny as told through the interwoven lives of two women that suffer the torment of undeclared love and how the theft of a sword known as the Green Destiny brings everything to light. It's true that to the Western viewers, the film has that twang of novelty but there are certain aspects of swordsman lore that will be sorely missed. According to Chinese legend, each sword possesses a spirit that sings after it has tasted blood. The over-emphasized resonating "schwing" of the sword being drawn is an attempt to dramatize the point on film. In Ang Lee's defense, he was able to effortlessly create a blend of Eastern physical grace and action, with American elements of performance intensity embedded in the behavioral subtleties and nuances of European cinema.
Set in the 19th century, legendary swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and the beautiful warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) have forged partnered loyalty in the pursuit of justice over personal fulfillment. After the tragic death of her fiance, Yu's devotion to his honor prevents her from sharing her secret passion for Li, who we also learn secretly loves Yu. Li believes that whoever owns the exquisite Green Destiny, a sword filled with ancient powers, will never find peace in one's life, so he entrusts the sword to Yu and asks her to deliver it as a gift to the highly respected Sir Te in Beijing. Meanwhile, the rambunctiously youthful aristocrat Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) and her mysterious governess (Cheng Pei Pei), arrive at Sir's home in preparation for Jen's loveless, arranged marriage that will solidify her family's position in Beijing. Yu discovers that Jen's governess, who secretly teaches Jen "wu dung" (wu tang) swordplay, is the notorious fugitive Jade Fox, the woman who killed Li's master sadly justifying, "He'd sleep with me but never teach me." When the Green Destiny is stolen, that's when things get flying.
The first fight between Yu and Jen is beyond wire gagery. I mean we're talking about extended moments of flight, running up and down walls, and aerial ballet where the way these characters flail their arms and legs makes them look like panicking supermen who aren't used to flying. It's a bit too "airy." Ching Siu Tung is still the master of wire stunts. And just when Yuen Woo Ping pulls off some incredibly interesting camera perspectives that successfully fools your logic he does what he's constantly criticized for doing in Hong Kong, undercranking the camera to the point where the fighters look ridiculously cartoonish. Just revisit Donnie Yen's kicking performance in Yuen's IRON MONKEY.
Driven by the sword's loss, Li comes to town. Now here's a piece of inadvertent coherency. Chow is the first to admit that he doesn't know how to use a sword, which is painfully obvious when he does the prescribed sword form. What's so crazy is that on the "long shot" of the scene, his double looks just as inept. Strangely, it works. We've all seen films where we can tell the star knows nothing, yet suddenly he/she can pop into some amazing piece of PhD movement only to later return to high school.
A curious 20 minute flashback pops up literally from nowhere, where we learn about the impassioned love between Jen and the true love of her life, the renegade bandit Lo. It's not inherently clear in the film, but the story's title CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (WO HU, TSANG LUNG) is actually referring to the love story between the crouching Jen and the hidden Lo. Jen essentially wants to love a fighter and fight her lover.
Then we have what is really an awesome fight among the tree tops of old Cathay, where Li teaches Jen a lot about humility and the spirit of a true swordsman. Literally suspended 60 feet in the air, barely hanging on to the flimsy tree branches, we're witnessing what in martial arts is called "ching gong," a real-life technique that when learned (and one must start training before age 8) an individual can run atop reeds, jump over walls or walk on water. These sequences are powerfully reminiscent from King Hu's TOUCH OF ZEN or Ching Siu Tung's bizarrely beautiful, aerial display of ballet in BUTTERFLY AND SWORD, when Michelle Yeoh dispatches her antagonists amidst a canopy of bamboo (it's also a better fight).
The coolest thing about the film is Ang Lee's intelligent casting of arguably the most famous and beloved kung-fu lady of the mandarin swordfilms, Cheng Pei Pei as the evil Jade Fox. We are truly speaking about one of the living legends of Hong Kong's silver screen (COME DRINK WITH ME (1965), GOLDEN SWALLOW (1968)) and simply put, she looks great and it was such a classy thing of Lee to feature her. It's also the first time she has ever been a villain, a role she totally enjoyed and absorbed.
CROUCHING TIGER is Lee's homage to the old style wu xia pian films right down to the proverbial tea house in the middle of the forest, chopsticks used as weapons and the pathetic old guy that runs the place, scene. And although Lee is Western trained and has done some reputable films, he actually fails to capture the essence of these old style genre classics, the exhibited nihilistic, battle-scarred ambience so evident in the films of Chang Cheh. And funnily enough, Yeoh's Mandarin is as plausible as Costner's English accent in ROBIN HOOD.
However, the romantic in me applauds Lee's tragically clear point about romance. If you love someone, don't hold back, tell them and love that person more in life than in death. But just think, with it's $15 million price tag, the cost of about 200 of those classic Shaw Brothers films, which would you rather see? One film that's been done over and over, or 200 classic films that can never be replaced? So until next time, enjoy life, train hard and move forward.
Written by Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM