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Mention the phrase martial arts
film to most moviegoers and visions of badly dubbed actors gruntingly executing
chop-socky moves dance through their heads. Even after the heyday of Hong Kong cinema back
in the late 80s had resurrected the kung-fu flick as historical Chinese epics and
added on a layer of athleticism not seen since the days of Fairbanks Sr., the martial arts
film got little respect outside of a rabid fanbase. It was relegated to the realm of
guilty pleasures for many cinephiles, a marginalized genre supposedly fit only for the
grindhouses and fan-boy cult status.
Intentionally or not, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may be the one kung-fu film that legitimizes the genre as bona fide cinema without selling out entirely. Its a Lawrence of Arabia for the chop-socky set, an epic film of romance and revenge that will satisfy both the die-hards and the former disbelievers of kinetic, frenzied martial arts melodrama. All the inherent conventions of the past films are present (a desire to avenge the untimely death of a master, a hidden temple that teaches an invincible fighting style, a mystical weapon, spectacular butt-kicking and lots of it), but thanks to the talent involved and top-notch production values, the tried-and-true elements of kung-fu films have rarely seemed so lyrical and accessible.
Swordsman-for-hire Li Mu Bai (H.K. superstar and all-around action movie bad-ass Chow Yun-Fat) wanders into a security compound run by his female counterpart and romantic interest Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) asking for a favor. Hes giving up his mystical Green Destiny sword in order to live a peaceful life, and hed like her to place it in safe hands on her way to Beijing. She reluctantly agrees and gives the sword to a prominent friend of her late fathers, only to find it stolen the next night. Many think it is the work of the notorious thief Jade Fox, who had killed Lis master years earlier, but Yu seems more than a little suspicious of a seemingly innocent young woman named Jen (Zhang Ziyi) whos taken to prying about the life of swordsmen. Yu decides to bait her prey and then all hell breaks loose.
The plot gets more labyrinthine from there, with roving bands of barbarians, a dogged cop and his daughter, arranged marriages and local martial artists bearing names such as Iron Arm Chang figuring prominently into the mix. Needless to say, the first things off most viewers lips wont be centered on the story so much as the jaw-dropping marathon fight scenes. Thanks in large part to noted fight choreographer and wire enthusiast Yuen Woo-Ping (best known to Westerners as the man pulling Keanus strings in The Matrix), the characters engage in some of the most pulse-pounding hand-to-hand combat and swashbuckling ever to grace a big screen. With figures running across rooftops, silently flying through the air, executing gymnastic flips and kicks, fighting with any and every weapon they can get their hands on, the scenes move with unparalleled energy and grace. Even in the post H.K.-action-film, post-Matrix era when jaded adrenaline addicts demand increasingly bigger bangs for their buck, these scenes will literally take your breath away.
Its what director Ang Lee (Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm) does with the quieter, more introspective scenes, however, that puts this movie in a league of its own. Lee's films brim with motifs of familial bonds, clashing cultures and personal vs. social duties. Its his interest in how these characters interact both with each other and with social convention that provide the story with its various conflicts and voice his themes. Jens desire to escape a pre-arranged union and live the free life of a warrior, Lis desire to leave his fighting days behind him, Yus confusion regarding her feelings towards Li (he was friend of her late husbands)--all center around what their cultural mores demand of them vs. their individual needs. Unafraid to enfold personal themes or human drama into the tapestry of an adrenalized, epic canvas, the film speaks to filmgoers on intellectual and emotional as well as visceral levels.
Closer to Greek tragedy than it is to kung fu films, Crouching Tiger is a rare beast indeed: an action film even aesthetes and snobs can love. Some old-school fans might counter that the pulpier elements of chop-socky cinema have been drained to make it more palatable to mainstream audiences, but Lee & Co. havent sold out--they have elevated the genre to a new level of artistry. By adding in narrative textures and aesthetics that lift it above your average Saturday matinee fare while maintaining all of the visceral elements that have fostered such a devoted fanbase, they have come up with a bona fide masterpiece.
- David Fear