Ang Lee is a perfectly competent director who wishes to be an auteur. That’s not a bad thing; he’s made a few great films. As any baseball fan will tell you, however, if you swing for the fences every time you don’t just hit homers. You also end up with some pretty epic strikeouts. To extend the metaphor for just another moment, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an instance of Lee getting all of that fastball and bouncing it off the giant video board.
This was a notable film for a variety of reasons. Foremost, it’s a good tale well told. Praise enough for any movie, but this also presented Eastern cinema to large audiences in the US who had previously been largely ignorant of such things. Moreover, it wasn’t even one of the already established cult genres of Hong Kong action, Japanese samurai, or anime. Instead, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon introduced the mainland Chinese genre of “wuxia“. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve gleaned it’s an amalgam of historical, fantasy, fairy-tale, and fighting genres often (always?) featuring physics-defying martial artists.
A common flaw in many films which inhabit cult genre ghettos is having the attendant deficiencies that go along with low budgets. Poor acting beyond the lead, maybe, or a weak script, or effects that might just as well be signs saying “out of money”. This movie has none of these problems. If features top-notch talent top to bottom. Two of the leads are Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat as star-crossed lovers. They have held back their unrequited passions for each other for years. Each has been afraid to speak and deferential to the other’s professional obligations. In contrast to them, are another pair of lovers played by Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. They’re younger, in a much different situation in life, but at heart they also suffer from being separated by circumstances that seem beyond their control.
Much of this is obscure for the first half of the movie. The elements of the tale are slowly revealed to the viewer as complicating factors are interleaved with the characters and serve to begin to reveal the relationships and desires of the primary characters. A villain, a vendetta, a stolen sword, and an arranged marriage first convolute and then clarify the stakes and motivations. Much of the middle is a flashback deftly handled, though otherwise the entirety of the tragedy (for that is what this is) takes place over a relatively few short days of plot time. While the very end may be a bit too foreign to avoid confusing a Western audience, there is no question about how sad it all is.
The melancholic air pervading the film is further enhanced by the astounding scenery, beautiful cinematography, and haunting soundtrack. The music should be noted for it’s effective use of traditional Chinese instruments and they add an appeal of the exotic while not being obscure. The wire-work stunts and fights, while familiar in form to anyone who has seen The Matrix (indeed, both films have the same fight choreographer), are much more balletic than gee-whiz.
Though it’s not an upbeat, feel-good film, it’s one worth your time. Instead of a Hollywood ending we get a Shakespearean-style tragedy with an Eastern twist. For anyone willing to pay attention, there are deep truths here about the flaws and failings that are common to humanity regardless of from where one hails.