Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Movie – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (CTHD) was a landmark martial arts film in many ways.  Prior to 2000 most people in the U.S. thought of that genre as badly dubbed, poorly plotted, “chopsocky” films with cheesy sound effects.  This was due to all the inexpensive films of this nature that made up a lot of weekend TV programming.  CTHD is about as far from that as you can get.  It was the first martial arts film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (and this was back when only five films could be nominated).  In fact, it received a total of 10 nominations – the most ever for a foreign language film.  It won four of them, including wins for Cinematography, Score, and Art Direction.  No foreign language film has ever won Best Picture, but in my opinion this should have been the one to do it.  While Gladiator was an entertaining film, CTHD was the better of the two.

The film was directed by Ang Lee.  Although he was Taiwanese he had set most of his films outside that country.  They also spanned across many genres.  He had a comedy set in modern day New York City (The Wedding Banquet), a period Jane Austen adaptation (Sense & Sensibility), a family drama set in the U.S. suburbs in the 1970s (The Ice Storm), and a war film set during the U.S. Civil War (Ride with the Devil).  The fact that he would next tackle a period martial arts film set in China was just another step.  By the way, he would finally win a Best Director Oscar in 2006 for his film Brokeback Mountain.

Of the three major people cast for the film only Michelle Yeoh had experience with martial arts movies.  Chow Yun-Fat, while an action star, had achieved his fame in modern films with a lot of gunplay.  (Check him out in John Woo’s films The Killer and Hard Boiled).  Zhang Ziyi had only been in one prior film – 1999’s The Road Home – which was a standard drama.  She had received good notice for her work in it.

Both Chow and Zhang spent months learning how to handle swords and the other weapons.  In addition, Zhang spent months learning calligraphy for a scene in the film where her character has to display her skill with it.  Another challenge was the language.  For those who aren’t aware, there is no language called “Chinese”.  There are many languages in use in that country, with the most prevalent being Mandarin.  Cantonese is most prevalent in Hong Kong.  Yeoh did not speak Mandarin, and while Chow knew it as a secondary language, the film demanded a specific style of speech because of its time period (1770s).  Picture two native Spanish speakers asked to learn all their lines for a film in Shakespearean English and you get some idea of what the two went through.

Finally, all three had to learn wire work for the stunts.  The best example for western audiences prior to this film was 1999’s The Matrix.  The performers are placed in harnesses and do their gravity-defying moves.  The harnesses are then digitally removed in post-production.  This has led some people to derogatively refer to films that do this as “wire fu”, and some say that this is not true martial arts.  While I can see their point, the result is some very beautiful movements by the actors and actresses and I like them a lot when they are done well.  By the way, Yuen Woo-ping, who did the fighting choreography for The Matrix, is the fight choreographer for CTHD, too.

These movements also caused some confusion when the movie first came out.  Many westerners didn’t get how these characters were supposed to be doing these things.  (In The Matrix it wasn’t in the real world, so that was okay).  If you have similar misgivings, just think of it this way – these were people who had trained for many years in skills that have now been lost to the modern world.  If that doesn’t help, think of it another way – it is just the convention of the genre like tons of bullets being shot at the hero in an action film and him never getting hit, while he hits a bad guy every time he shoots.  Neither is realistic, but it is something you just go with.

CTHD surprised many people for the depth of the drama that was in it.  There are two main plot lines – Li Mu Bai (Chow) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) are longtime friends and companions.  Both love the other, but neither has ever spoken of it because it would not be proper due to their situation.  She is the widow of his best friend.  He is a Master who has studied all the arts.  She has learned some arts, but since women are barred from this study, hers are a little more limited. 

The other plotline involves Jen Yu (Zhang), the daughter of a nobleman.  She has secretly been violating the ban on women studying the greatest martial arts.  Unbeknownst to Yu, her teacher is Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), an enemy of the realm.  Yu also had a secret love affair with a bandit (Chang Chen) who captured her.

The film opens with a masked person stealing the valuable Green Destiny sword, which Li Mu Bai has just given as a gift.  Yu Shu Lien sees this happening and pursues this person.  What follows is a great sequence across rooftops, in courtyards, and in the air as the two combatants vie for the upper hand.  If you watch closely you will see that Lien is not quite as skilled as the thief.  While the masked person can jump to a rooftop, Lien has to run up objects to reach the roof.  In addition, when they are fighting hand to hand, Lien keeps stepping on the stranger’s foot to keep the person on the ground because she might not be able to follow.  The thief finally manages to escape, but Lien has her suspicions on who it might be – Jen Yu, who had been so interested in the sword the day before.

It is soon revealed that Lien is correct.  Jade Fox appears to whisk her pupil away, but not before Li Mu Bai starts to make a connection.  He offers to train Yu, even though that is not supposed to be done.  While Jade Fox has been able to train her in skills greater than women were allowed to possess, they are still crude compared to the men who go through proper training with a Master.  Unfortunately, Jen Yu’s youth and pride drive her to reject Li Mu Bai’s offer.  She goes off on her own, disguised as a boy.  She delights in causing offense to others, who then challenge her to duels.  There is a fantastic sequence in a restaurant where we see just what she is capable of.

These characters come back together again, of course.  The outcome of both plotlines may not be what people expect.  I’m going to do something I don’t often do.  I’m going to discuss the ending because I have seen it misinterpreted by some people.  I will place a spoiler warning below and then an end spoiler tag, so that you can skip to the text below it, if you have not seen the film.


I saw this in the theater.  At first it seemed like Jen Yu and her bandit lover would end up together.  I remember seeing him wake up the next morning and Yu was not there.  They then showed a long shot of Yu standing on a high bridge.  I thought to myself, “Christ, she’s going to jump”.  Sure enough, she does.  This was apparently a huge shock to a woman sitting a few rows behind me.  She gasped, and then started letting out these huge, wrenching sobs that continued into the closing credits.  I could tell she didn’t understand what had happened.  As the audience was filing out I thought about going back to talk to her, but her boyfriend was trying to console her and he looked really embarrassed, so I minded my own business.

What I wanted to explain to her is that Jen Yu is not committing suicide.  Earlier in the film we were told of a person who jumped off the same mountain, but ended up joining the gods, flying with them.  In the final scene, we can clearly see that Yu is not falling; she is flying.  She is becoming like the character we heard about in the tale.

I found out later that my interpretation was correct.  People who have read the series of wuxia books by Du Lu Wang (CTHD is based on the fourth one), have pointed out that Jen Yu’s character returns in the fifth one, so she does not die at the end of CTHD.  Note – there is no English language translation for these books yet, which is why there is no link at the bottom of this post.

One other note – the original DVD’s audio options menu for some stupid reason actually shows this scene prior to the menu coming up.  I have no idea why they would reveal such a major spoiler.  I mention this because when I watched it with my sister she wanted to see the dubbed version, not the subtitled one.  I had her look away while I went into that menu.  Related to this, I have seen the film both ways and the subtitled version is the superior one.  While the dubbing was very well done, you still lose the emotions of the original performances.  Some of the impact of the characters’ stories is lessened because of this.


CTHD brought together three generations of female martial arts stars.  Cheng Pei-pei, who played Jade Fox, started out in the 1960s and was one of the first major women in martial arts films.  Michelle Yeoh became popular in the 1980s, and even turned up in a James Bond film.  Zhang Ziyi became a star in the 2000s after this film came out.  She has gone on to be in several more martial arts films, including the next two I will be reviewing.  Zhang had extensive dance training before becoming an actress and this has helped her immensely with learning the martial arts fighting moves for her films.  Kim Wilson at 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die let me know that Cheng Pei-pei was also a ballet dancer and this led to her getting cast in the 1966 film Come Drink with Me.  You can read Kim’s review of that film here.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a terrific introduction for people to the fact that a martial arts film can be much more than just a bunch of fight scenes.  This is a visually beautiful film, both for the fighting and for the sets and costumes.  It also has a lot of depth of story, and plenty of romance to get people involved emotionally.  I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Of the film that Ang Lee has done, this is my third favorite film of his. The Ice Storm is my favorite with Brokeback Mountain in 2nd.

    It's a very beautiful film that is entertaining and full of style. It's the one film I haven't reviewed properly but that review is probably going to be done very late in the year or early next year as he will be the first Auteurs subject I'll discuss for 2013.

  2. @thevoid99 - Wow, and I thought I was a planner. :-) I would have a hard time picking between CTHD and Brokeback Mountain, with The Wedding Banquet close behind in third.

  3. I've heard so many great things about this movie, but I always thought of it as just a martial arts film (my mistake, I understand now). I hope I can see it soon, I really like Ang Lee's style!

  4. Great review! I love Ang Lee's films they have very unique and delicate feel - always with such beautiful cinematography and engaging story. This one was really a breath of fresh air.

  5. @Diana - It's definitely worth seeing.

    @Sati. - I agree. Thanks!

  6. Ang Lee is a dude? For some reason I thought Ang Lee was a woman. well live and learn I guess lol

    I was just thinking about this film when trying to find films to compare to The Raid Redemption. Both had different styles but tons of kick ass action.

    Nice write up Chip, I may have to give this a rewatch, I ahve not seen it since it first came out.

  7. @3guys1movie - I have not see The Raid: Redemption yet, but from what I have heard I'm not sure how close the two films are. I would recommend you follow up on your thought and re-watch CTHD first. I think you may be remembering it having more action in it than it does.

  8. First, thanks for the plug, Chip. Second, I love CTHD so much. I agree that it was better than Gladiator (though I love that, too). I never really knew that about the ending, but I din't take it as hard as that sobbing female.

    Ang Lee is a master director. He can do any genre well, which is unusual for today's directors.

  9. @Kim Wilson - "He can do any genre well, which is unusual for today's directors." I completely agree. Thanks for reading.