It’s almost impossible to write about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon without using words like “grandeur”, “breathtaking”, and suchlike. The scenery positively demands it, without even starting on the film itself. Sweeping vistas over mountainous regions, wreathed in mist and clothed in vivid green, offer the sort of territory that is probably quite foreign to most of us. Ancient Chinese towns and cities, likewise, do a great job of transporting us into another time and another world. Clearly this film did not suffer from the constrained budget that plagues many Asian films.
Then there’s the music: poignant cello that almost hypnotises, interspersed with deep drumbeats for the martial moments. It would be hard to imagine a soundtrack that was more evocative of a lyrical, tragic, mythical mood than this.
And once we do start considering the film, we’re talking about Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat, both of whom invoke their characters with passion and compassion, bringing them to life apparently effortlessly. And yes, I know they worked hard, but part of their talent is that they don’t appear to be working hard. They inhabit their characters and give them life and meaning. Zhang Ziyi, as the young female lead, has to work quite a bit harder, but manages creditably, while Chang Chen, having previously worked with such demanding directors as Wong Kar Wai (in Happy Together), takes his role by the throat and shakes it. Chang Pei Pei, a veteran of the glory days of Hong Kong filmmaking, brings a bitter tragedy to her role, a knowledge of one cheated and outdone.
Supporting characters all do their part, quietly and with dispatch, but it’s hard to notice them with Yeoh and Chow on the screen. Both are superb actors, and deal with the difficult emotional subtleties of their characters with dazzling professionalism. Yeoh looks by far the most convincing of the cast in the action scenes, but that is to be expected, given her considerable experience in action work. Surprisingly, Zhang comes off better than Chow in the fight scene in the bamboo forest: Chow is a talented actor, but he just looks a tad too heavy for this scene, and doesn’t have the moves. Jet Li would have done this particular scene superbly, but as has been pointed out to me, he would have looked too young for the character. Oh, well.
Are you surprised I’ve made it this far without talking about the action sequences? Well, now is the time. First up, this is blatant wirework: there’s no subtle pretense that these moves are within the actors capabilities. The wirework here is not merely accentuating the leaps and tumbles, or simulating harsh blows with a tug on the ropes. That said, I must confess that I found the action beautiful: the serene floating grace of several of the fight scenes captured the essence of martial skills augmented by a spiritual lightness. In particular, the scenes involving the two women were superb, showing flashing swordplay and rapid choreography that kept the audience entranced.
The weaponry used in the film was also impressive. Apparently Ang Lee chose all of the weapons from a sort of traditional weapons encyclopedia: a Jane’s for non-ballistic weapons, perhaps. And each fighter used their weapon in an appropriate way, which satisfied the pedant that I can sometimes be: after all, curved swords are different from straight longswords, and need a different style to be effective. As do flexile swords, as do spears, as do the paired curvy things with hooks used by Michelle and the marvellously wicked-looking pair of devices used by the secret policeman (neither of which I can name. I’ll be grateful if anyone can).
As an aside, I first saw this film at a sort of charity premiere in Adelaide (where I live, folks), and I was a tad apprehensive about how a definitely mainstream (and even arthouse) audience would respond. I very nearly cried (well, I did cry. I’m an old sook) when, at the close of the film, the entire audience stood up and applauded. All of them. For quite some time. For me, it was some sort of vindication of the genre, and a sign of approval of my continued passion for Asian films.
In summary, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by this film, at least for one such as myself. The story is engrossing, most of the acting is great, the visuals make me want to hunt down a travel agency immediately, and the music makes me cry.
I must just add one thing here: consider it my own personal prediction of the future. I’m convinced that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will, in years to come, be considered one of the classics of the world of cinema, in the vein of Lawrence of Arabia or Ben Hur: an epic that will endure long after the summer hit teen movie has gone to dust. And I’m glad that the world of Chinese history and culture has been brought to the mainstream audience in such a way. I can’t finish that sentence without using words like ‘grandeur’ and ‘breathtaking’, and henceforward dissolving into incoherent fangrrl adoration, so I’ll leave it here, where I began. How very Daoist.