High flying action
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a timeless, mythic tale of good vs. evil
Taiwanese director Ang Lee's bold, seductive Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a stunning departure from Lee's recent forays into Americana, from the suburbs of prosperous Connecticut in The Ice Storm to Civil War-torn Missouri in Ride With the Devil. Shot in Mandarin Chinese, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon revisits the interplay of tenderness, sentiment, tests of honor and gravity-defying action in the Hong Kong films that captivated American cineastes for a spell in the early '90s.
Lee's spin on the Hong Kong action film is a subversive, delicately stated coming-of-age story. In this teen melodrama transposed to early 19th century China, a young girl learns the limits of an apparently boundless adult freedom. What at first appears limitless about the world of the Giang Hu marital arts life to aspiring fighter Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) is gradually defined as a freedom hampered by responsibility and obligations.
Jen is a coddled aristocrat's daughter enjoying her last days of freedom before an arranged marriage into another esteemed family. The plot is set in motion when the newly pacifist Giang Hu fighter Li Mu Bai (Hong Kong heart-throb Chow Yun Fat) gives up his Green Destiny sword. During his warrior training, instead of enlightenment, Li experienced a devastating emptiness that inspired him to renounce the life of a warrior and its symbol, the Green Destiny.
Characters like Li in Crouching Tiger are invested with a weighty sense of remorse and responsibility for their actions. As Li's fellow Giang Hu fighter Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) later warns Jen of the Green Destiny's deceptive charm, "once you see it tainted with blood, its beauty is hard to admire."
The sword in Crouching Tiger becomes a symbol of loss of innocence and the heavy burden of sacrifice. Characters grasp at Green Destiny as a symbol of power — including Jen, who sees its strength as her salvation from a life of domesticated femininity — before they've truly understood its responsibilities.
Shu Lien is not only Li's colleague but the love object he will not pursue out of a different code of honor. At Li's request, Shu Lien delivers Green Destiny to a loyal friend, Sir Te (Lung Sihung), for safekeeping. In a play on Arthurian legend, mischievous teen Jen makes off with the sword under cover of night, in a bid for adventure — and for power — on the dwindling days of her girlhood.
The first action scene of Jen swathed in bandit's black and sweeping into the sword's resting place like a vapor establishes the delicate rhythms of Lee's luminous, metaphysical action film. At night, a new logic prevails, as characters like Jen give reign to their desires, which are kept carefully cloaked and calm in daylight. When Jen is apprehended by Shu Lien, the film erupts from its tranquil, genteel pace into a typically fantastic, weightless Hong Kong action film. But it is action infused with Lee's silken, thoughtful touch.
Accompanied by Tan Dun's subtle musical score, the scene of Jen and Shu Lien skittering like windblown leaves over the rooftops of Sir Te's compound during their graceful fisticuffs establishes the blissfully chimerical physical properties of Lee's world. As in dreams, the fighters are not entirely airborne but must bound off buildings and ground with a noticeable exertion of physical force. Their bodies are partly under gravity's control and partly defined by the buoyant leaps of imagination that dictate Hong Kong physics.
Jen's identity as the nighttime bandit of the Green Destiny is soon revealed, as is her affiliation with an evil criminal force, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei). Jen's introduction to womanhood is bracketed on one side by Shu Lien, whose warrior's life of apparent freedom Jen greatly admires, and on the other hand by Jade Fox, whose freedom is lawless and amoral. While Shu Lien's behavior is always constrained by a restrictive code of ethics, Jade Fox's life is that of a murderess who kills without remorse. After Jade Fox murders a policeman in another spectacular action sequence accessorized with throwing blades and swords, Li shrugs off his pacifist calling and assumes warrior's garb once again. The forces of good band together to battle the evil-doer Jade Fox.
Crouching is essentially a tale of good vs. evil and experience vs. naivete. The contested party in this tale of moral choices is impetuous, spoiled Jen, who flees her imminent marriage for a martial arts adventure on the open road and must eventually learn to respect the heritage and nobility of her chosen art form in Lee's allegory of hard-won maturity.
A work of remarkable restraint, a great deal of Crouching Tiger's most memorable action occurs beneath the surface. Love, desire, loyalty and hatred form the terra firma of the film's more evident gravity-defying lyricism.