“Bruce Lee meets Jane Austen” – that was how Ang Lee initially pitched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, his first non-English language film following The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil and, yes, Sense and Sensibility.
Crouching Tiger actually belongs to a genre in Chinese literature and film called Wuxia. These fantasy fictions told of 19th century warriors with martial arts skills that included superhuman strength and speed, and the ability to defy gravity.
Wuxia films have been the staple of Chinese cinema for decades and the last five years has seen growing interest from Western audiences, largely down to the commercial success of Jackie Chan, the discovery of Jet Li and The Matrix’s westernization of the martial arts genre.
Crouching Tiger is an epic romantic melodrama revolving around the story of the stolen sword of Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow, whose mere presence radiates grandiosity). However, because this is an Ang Lee film it is the female characters that are actually the main focus (even the conventional “bad guy” is a woman).
Yeoh (last seen in Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies) plays Yu Shu Lien, Li’s close friend and the character that we empathise with most. Zhang Ziyi is Yu Jen (the hidden dragon of the title), an aristocrat’s daughter waiting to be married. It is these two who dominate the spectacular fight scenes – and boy, what scenes they are. Choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping (he did The Matrix too) they are some of the most exhilarating moments in modern cinema. Fists fly, swords clash and when the characters leap from rooftop to rooftop with the grace of feathers, jaws drop.
The first fight scene comes about 15 minutes into the film and it’s a safe bet that the audience you see this with will burst into simultaneous applause and laughter, their eyes not quite believing what they have just seen, nay, experienced. In comparison, The Matrix looks downright stiff and amateur. Even martial arts fans used to the acrobatics and “wire-fu” of well-regarded films such as Iron Monkey and the Jet Li-starring Once Upon a Time in China series will be on the very last thread of their seats.
From there on in Crouching Tiger doesn’t pause for breath (except for an extended flashback about Yu Jen and her lover) and neither will you. This film takes you into its fantasy world and hits you with some stunning backdrops (including the Gobi desert), breathtaking action and an enrapturing performance by Zhang Ziyi. For all the awards that Crouching Tiger will inevitably be nominated for, perhaps the most deserved, but probably overlooked, will be that of Best Supporting Actress for Zhang. She embodies the whole heart of the film, nimbly but powerfully fighting against everyone she thinks is trying to oppress her. It is a physical and emotional performance that is genuinely captivating.
Crouching Tiger manages to be a successful crowd-pleaser without compromising any artistic or cultural integrity. It is a martial art film with an emphasis on the art. The desert flashback segment alone is a brave and beautifully judged shift in pace that makes the action scenes that much more important.
Do not be put off by the genre or the Mandarin dialect; films like this don’t come along every year, they don’t even come along every decade. In fact, this is the first film of its kind to receive such a widespread and critically acclaimed release. It could be the first of many: Ang Lee is considering making a prequel, for this is only the fourth instalment in a five part novel by Wang Du Lu. Truly great cinema should move you to a different place. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does that by leaps and bounds.