I really didn't want to like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (IMDb listing). I went into a small theater in Manhattan with a chip on my shoulder for several reasons. First, I despise "buzz movies," or those films that get good responses from so-called critics before they've even seen the movie, which was in full-force with this film. Second, I hate subtitles because they're a distraction from the visual elements of the movie and actually would prefer bad English dubbing most of the time. And finally, I don't like martial arts movies.
I love movies with great martial arts scenes, but I don't like martial arts movies because even the best ones are simple action films. I'm a big fan of Jackie Chan, but not really of his movies because his talent could be applied to greater things besides B-grade action fare. "Crouching Tiger" is different because it uses the martial arts genre as a tool for greater things, just as the science fiction genre is merely the background for the fairy tale theme of the "Star Wars" films.
Ang Lee's epic film, based on the novel by Wang Dulu, is a classic because it contains the best martial arts scenes ever but it isn't centered around violence or action (there's little bloodshed in the movie and only a handful of deaths). The fight scenes themselves are amazingly well choreographed, fast but not too fast, and displaying a ballet-like gracefulness. It must have been tough for Lee and especially the producers after seeing early versions of these magnificent, landmark scenes to not shred the story and make a pure action film. I'm sure they knew they were on to something big with these intricate sword-fighting episodes, but they remained keenly focused on the story. Because it's a magical story, I'm sure American moviegoers will also focus on plot rather than action.
"Crouching Tiger" has several sub-plots but the main story centers around a young princess named Jen Yu, marvelously played by newcomer Zhang Ziyi. Jen Yu is scheduled to be married to the son of her father's ally, though she has no desire to marry. She yearns for freedom and aspires to live the life of independence and adventure, like her would-be mentors Li Mu Bai (action icon Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh in another great performance), the greatest warriors in the kingdom who also happen to harbor unrequited romantic feelings for one another.
The movie has villains, a magic sword, plot twists, love interests and all the other components of a fairy tale adventure. But the film, ultimately, is a romance and an excellent one at that. More than anything "Crouching Tiger" is about individuals, especially women, breaking free from societal boundaries. There is the sense that Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are aging warriors who have hit a wall in their lives. There's no fight left in them and all they want is to retire peacefully together, but their code prohibits them from expressing their love. Jen Yu, on the opposite end, desires a warrior's life but knows it's forbidden because she is the governor's daughter and is destined to be married off to a man she's never met.
There haven't been many action or adventure movies that have been bold enough to focus on women or tackle feminine themes in such a dignified and heartfelt manner as "Crouching Tiger." Director Ang Lee deserves a special note for creating a film where female warriors are the true protagonists and heroes. Lee hits it out of the ballpark, thanks mostly to Zhang Ziyi, the film's secret weapon. I have never seen a more stunning performance by a young actor. This is just Ziyi's second feature film, and she simply does it all, playing Jen Yu to the zenith as both a lonely, conflicted young girl and as a rebellious, confident warrior. Ziyi, obviously a radiant actress, is right at home in the dramatic episodes of the movie, but she also excels in the sublime action scenes, exuding a hidden confidence and vigor. In the hands of a lesser performer (and director, to give Lee his credit) the combination would not have worked and the story would have suffered. But Ziyi not only pulls off the duality of her character but steals a great film as well. I can't wait to see her on screen again.
My only complaint with "Crouching Tiger" is that the conclusion feels rushed. Lee begins the movie slowly and builds it with great care, but the film winds down into too much action and ends almost abruptly. I wanted more of the characters in the finale, and I felt like the projector was cut off too soon (It's rare for me, or most people for that matter, to argue that a film should be longer these days). That complaint, however, is tempered with news of a sequel and prequel in the works for "Crouching Tiger." Dulu's book of the same title has five episodes, and the film is based on the fourth installment. As for as those movies-to-be are concerned, I'm in line already.
Concerning the three complaints at the beginning of this review, I have this to say: First, I still hate "buzz" movies but in this case, the hype is deserved. Second, I didn't mind the subtitles in this movie. I'm grateful there was no dubbing or even English dialogue in the film because it would have taken away the authenticity of the film's atmosphere. I was so captivated by the visuals in this film that I may have missed some of the dialogue, but at the same time I may have picked up a bit of Mandarin Chinese. Third, the martial arts action in "Crouching Tiger" makes it a beautiful film because the action truly is artful. A special note must be made for the flying scenes as well, which are gloriously original and were apparently dangerous to film (no computer animation or blue-screens were used, and most of the scenes use the actual stars of the film rather than stunt doubles). Like martial arts, flight has meaning in the movie. Li Mu Bia, the greatest warrior in the land, can scale buildings, tree and cliffs. His strength and purity allows him to defy gravity and simply glide through the air like a bird.
The movie is a coming of age tale like all good fairy tales and it shows how Jen Yu tries to find that same strength. In the film's final scene, a wonderfully cryptic and touching moment, we see young girl has finally achieved that power as she very nearly glides off the screen and out of the theater. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" will have audiences doing the same, applauding the whole way.
Filmfodder Grade: A