Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, 2000)
China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, USA
120 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)
Review © 2001 Branislav L. SlantchevAfter the fifth viewing of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, I think it's about time I wrote down my impressions. When I saw the film a year ago for the first time, I was struck dumb. I had seen many Hong Kong films with wire-fu up the wazoo, so that was neither novel, nor startling. I have seen many melodramas with far better written scripts and more moving tragedies, so that did not cut the mustard either. I have also seen films that are better shot, better edited, and better produced. I have also heard films with far superior soundtracks. Yet, CTHD scored a high 10 then and it does so still.
It is not difficult to see why, and I do mean "see" as in "with your eyes." Without exaggeration, CTHD is perhaps one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen and this list does include THE MATRIX, the other cinematic masterpiece. The story, although trite and somewhat unimaginative, is dynamic enough, especially when carried along by the incredible cast and the superior choreography. Most fights are only tangentially related to the logic of the story, but are so beautiful, courtesy of Yuen Woo Ping, that one finds it easy to forgive the indulgence. The extravaganza spectacular is wrapped and served by the talented cinematographer Peter Pau, and these names should give you an impression about the quality of the visuals.
I misspoke, or rather, spoke too soon. The story isn't that bad really (that is, unless you buy the interpretations circulating in all other reviews). Okay, profound it probably ain't and I doubt that much was lost in translating Schamus' script into Chinese. There are two parallel love stories that sort of run into each other, much to the consternation of just about everyone involved. The older, but hardly wiser, "couple" comprises the famous warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and the sturdy, incredibly athletic, and always classy Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). These two, according to some convoluted logic that no one understands --- no, it's not a cultural thing, the Chinese in the film don't get it either --- can't seem to get around to telling each other how much they are in love. The young couple, Lo (Chang Chen) and Jen (Zhang Ziyi), do tell each other lots of bad poetry, but nevertheless screw up their relationship when Jen decides to go back to her parents.
Absence makes the heart go yonder, and young Jen (crouching tiger) is no exception. After spending a long time in separation from her bandit lover, she is forced into a political marriage but, prodded by her murderous nanny Jade Fox, she decides to run away instead. Being the little spoiled brat that she is, Jen pilfers Li's sword Green Destiny. Li, on the other hand, displays a lot of unhealthy (and mildly suspicious) interest in the talented Jen, much to the chagrin of the understanding Yu, who longs to spend her days in peace with the restless warrior. In short, Li wants to teach Jen, but Jen does not know what the hell she wants. Of course, being reared by her feminist nanny, she seems to suspect Li in wanting her body more than her skills. No one can blame her, his reasoning is bizarre.
Unfortunately, Li really only wants to tutor her, so he goes after he again and again. Jen, it seems, develops an affection for him, which naturally grows from the inordinate admiration she has for his legendary martial skills from Wudan training (that would be the Harvard of wire-fu). When Li is treacherously poisoned by Jade Fox, Jen tries to save him but fails and he breathes his last in the arms of the despondent Yu. Jen then goes back to reunite with Lo, thinking perhaps that this is her destiny, but realizes quickly enough that she can't enjoy a happy life with him. She then jumps off the mountain to drift into oblivion.
Not exactly a happy ending. To those who seem to think that her leap was, in fact, a happy ending, here's why it wasn't. First, she asked Lo to make a wish. But in the story of the young boy, it is the leaper who must make the wish, not some bystander. We are never told what she wished for. I bet it had something to do with Li, if anything. Second, Lo's crying did not seem happy to me. He was crying like one who has lost everything. Since he was a true believer and loved Jen profusely, he would have been happy if he truly thought they'd be going back to the desert. Third, Jen was not happy making love to him the day before. She sort of lay there, with a fixed gaze, physically present, but spiritually quite absent from the scene. I think that's when she realized she could not live happily ever after. Fourth, she had fallen for Li. She even thought/hoped he had come for her, not the sword, when he showed up (that he was). She did not love Lo any more. Proof? She did not go to him when she ran away from her marriage. She only casually asked where he was when Yu told her about him. She got really pissed when she found out that Li was trying to help Lo get back together with her (which, of course, meant that Li had no deeper feelings for her). Oh yeah, and when she could stay with Lo, she preferred suicide.
Although the fights in CTHD were the highlight for most people, I must say that I enjoyed the acting most. I understand that Michelle and Yun-Fat's Mandarin is atrocious but since I comprehend not a word of Chinese, I couldn't care less. I thought that they were great. Michelle and Ziyi, however, were simply incredible. I am not talking only about their acrobatic skills, and their coordination. I am talking about acting. The desert/cave scenes with Ziyi were mesmerizing, only because of her naughty presence. The dramatic scenes with Michelle were filled with subdued dignity and charm that only this actress possesses. Of course, I have been an out-of-the-closet Michelle fan for a while now, but CTHD surpassed even my expectations. One should not shortchange Chen and Yun-Fat, but it would not be an exaggeration to state that the two women carried the entire film.
I have the R3 DVD, which does have more extras than the R1 release, but the trailer won't play on my R1 DVD player. This is a mild annoyance, which I had to put up with only because I wanted the DVD back in March, where theaters here were still showing the film. I saw it twice on the big screen and the DVD quality compares very favorably with it. The picture is excellent, with no noticeable problems. The 5.1 Dolby Surround is also marvellous, although I have only checked the Mandarin track. The English subtitles are bright and yellow, just like the theatrical US release (and I believe the translation is the same --- this DVD is from the R3 pressing before they removed the subtitles). This film is definitely one to own on DVD, it does not matter which, as both R1 and R3 are virtually the same in terms of quality.
July 22, 2001. BLS