Originally printed January 16, 2001
It’s a unique feeling to want to get up and cheer for the hero while simultaneously wanting to sit in awe and not move a muscle for fear that you would miss a single frame. However, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” gives the viewer that and more. With both Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh giving exceptional performances, this film is truly deserving of the term masterpiece.
Taking place in the 19th Century, the story involves Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a Wudan warrior who has given up the life of the sword despite his vow to avenge his master, who died at the hands of the mysterious and feared Jade Fox. Li Mu Bai has entrusted his sword, The Green Destiny, to a friend as a symbol of his departure from his quest for vengeance. When the sword is stolen, Li Mu Bai’s close companion, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), tries to figure out what has happened, and she subsequently comes into contact with Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the sheltered and soon to be married daughter of a local governor.
Jen is fascinated with the lifestyle of Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai (who have almost legendary status among the people – think Jedi Knights), and she begins to question the life of inactivity and subservience that has been planned for her. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien must now deal with the quest to recapture The Green Destiny and the renewed search for Jade Fox (who appears to be connected with the theft and also has a new and lethal apprentice). In addition, there is the long but unconsummated relationship between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, which is one of the most subtle but enthralling on-screen relationships in recent film history.
Chow Yun-Fat is incredible in this film. Li Mu Bai is noble, strong, graceful and contemplative; he is the pinnacle of virtue – also, he really kicks some ass. While fighting with one hand literally behind his back, each move is cool and calculated, but he is able to give so much emotion to the role as well. Every look on his face is so expressive, and the mix of humor and sadness in his eyes is sometimes almost painful to watch.
Michelle Yeoh is also phenomenal as both a powerful warrior and a wise friend. Her multi-weapon battle near the end is one the most intense scenes in the film, and like Chow Yun-Fat, she is able to bring her character far beyond a mere fighter.
The scenery and backgrounds in the film are magnificent, full of mist-filled valleys and mountains as well as barren but beautiful desert landscapes. Every scene has a dreamlike quality to it, and the vibrant, mystical colors that fill the screen consume you completely as you are drawn into their world.
Fight scenes in this film take on a whole new quality in their disregard for gravity. Much of the fighting involves characters leaping across buildings, bouncing off the surface of water or soaring into the air either to attack or retreat. What is really impressive is that the majority of these acrobatics are actually done by the actors (with the help of safety wires, of course). When they are on the ground, the battles are fast, vicious and complex, and they are all accompanied by a rapid and heart-pounding drum beat that complements the combat perfectly.
The fight sequences were choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, who is best known in America for his work on “The Matrix,” and there are definitely shades of that same style in this film. However, the fight scenes in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” have a more magical, or fairy-tale quality to them, and you should be prepared to completely surrender your notions of physics and reality in order to completely enjoy the supernatural qualities of the film.
In fact, try to see the film when the audience is sparse, because otherwise, you will be bombarded with cries of “oh, that looks really realistic” from every snickering, confused jackass in the crowd – not that I’m bitter or anything.