What’s most appealing about Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is that the story’s stakes are, for the most part, interpersonal. The film never forgets that inside of each of its incredibly strong, skilled, and lethal martial artists is a real, beating human heart. For them, it’s just as much about surviving and defeating their enemies with style as it is about things like love, insecurity and freedom. This is a world in which human beings are capable of throwing punches at light-speed, one in which people can even fly, and yet, despite the level of improvisation possible within one’s mastery of martial arts, each of the characters is at constant odds with larger internal limitations.
Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) is a master of Wudang martial arts who, along with longtime friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), must deliver a legendary sword, “Green Destiny,” to Peking. Arriving at their destination, the mansion of Sir Te (Sihung Lung), Yu meets Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a governor expected to marry. Of course, given that we’ve got a legendary weapon exchanging hands, we have thieves attempting to steal it — namely Jade Fox, a thief who murdered Li Mu Bai’s master. To make things even more complicated, Jen has not only been secretly studying under Jade Fox but has surpassed her in combat abilities, being able to comprehend the secrets of Wudang martial arts. To make things even MORE complicated, Lo “Dark Cloud,” (Chang Chen), a bandit from the desert has come to Peking, not to steal the sword but to take Jen back to the desert with him, as they were once lovers many years ago.
Coming to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” one doesn’t expect to need to keep track of all these plot points, but one does expect some excellent action, which the film delivers in spades. In the grand scheme of the movie’s runtime, there are really only a few big fights, but each displays a level of creativity in its choreography that feels sorely lacking in today’s action blockbusters. Of course, there are a lot of special effects and camera tricks to grant each blow landed or blocked with a “Street Fighter”-esque level of impact, along with many flourishes of the impossible. People catch poison darts out of midair and are able to fly, which does, admittedly, look ridiculous by today’s standards. The best fight in the film, is the one between Yu and Jen, where Jen uses the Green Destiny to force Yu to take up about ten different weapons in opposition; adaptation is at the center of these encounters, with a tightly wound beat structure in each. This is an action film that doesn’t find its kinetic energy in explosions but instead in zooming in on how the energy of a punch or kick is received, absorbed and then launched back with greater ferocity.
The real surprise here, though, is that neither its action nor its complicated story are “Crouching Tiger’s” best attributes. At the center of everything is the tension between what one wants and what they’re expected to do. All the fighting remains centered on individual character objectives rather than on the abstract goal of saving the world. The stakes feel higher because they are more intimate; the action feels more gripping because love is on the table. Li Mu Bai and Yu have loved each other for years but can’t get together because Yu was engaged to Li Mu Bai’s deceased friend and wants to respect his friend’s memory. Yu and Jen connect as sisters, and even then, Yu seems to have internalized what a woman’s role ought to be in society, trying to get Jen to see the merits of marrying at a young age.
Jen is perhaps the most conflicted character of them all. She doesn’t want to marry, but despite how strong her love with Lo was back then, she doesn’t seem sold on staying with him either, at least by my vantage. A running theme in their relationship was her comb, which Lo had stolen when he and his gang robbed a Yu caravan passing through the desert; she chased him on horseback for the comb, and then, in the desert, the two fell in love. The comb doesn’t necessarily represent Yu so much as the idea of her, an idea that other characters can, in theory, “possess.” Jen doesn’t want to belong to anyone or to be possessed by anyone, even despite her love for Lo. She even goes off on her own to make her way as a warrior, which her past still interrupts: the expectations for her to fulfill her role as a governor’s daughter, her love affair with Lo, and the burning, envious hatred held by her master, Jade Fox, for having surpassed her. The only way to achieve freedom, to have one’s wish granted, that the film presents us with is a legend that Lo tells Jen: if one jumps off Wudan Mountain, their deepest wish will be granted, and a man who’d done so to cure his parents of an illness flew away as he jumped rather than dying. With all of these forces pulling at Jen in different directions, one could argue that she’s having a hard time putting a finger on what that deepest wish is.
Aside from displaying a mastery in kung-fu filmmaking, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” masterfully gets us invested in action film characters. They feel love and hatred for each other and exist within tensions that not even the strongest of punches can resolve. The characters aren’t just vehicles for spectacle; they remain human beings with beating hearts, desires and inner conflicts. Even amidst the entropic chaos of a well-constructed action sequence, the stakes remain personal and human.
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