Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 16, 2023 2:02 pm 
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ANG LEE: CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000; 4K re-release 2023)


Ang Lee's glorious transcendence of a martial arts genre

Hold the superlatives for now: Ang Lee's gentrified version of a Chinese wuxia or martial arts movie is very well done. It's done to the max, to be sure. People say it delivers an even more complicated plot-line than was usual in those pictures shown at odd hours on odd channels with awful English dubbing. Not so bad really, because it is hard not to care about these characters when such fine actors have been chosen to play them. Crouching Tiger was a huge mainstream, critical, and Oscar awards success when it came out. It transformed a specialized genre for a film that the general American public rushed to see. Now in a 4K restoration this glorious film is ready for new generations to enjoy where it deserves to be seen, on the biggest screen possible with the best sound to appreciate the score combining percussion and Yo Yo Ma's rhapsodic cello riffs. Ang Lee has made some fine films, including Life of Pi and The Ice Storm, but only Brokeback Mountain outstrips this one in his oeuvre. And this is the one where he most soars free - like the famous combatants who fly and float and sway in the tall, thick green bamboo forest in the famous aerial battle near the end.

You might say any wuxia film is just an excuse for ridiculously spectacular leaps and flights through the air and displays of impossibly fast swordplay. But here there is the stunning representation of women, whose prowess and plot importance outstrips the men. There's a well-developed theme of tradition and revolt. And there are two love stories, involving a mature couple who have platonically adored each other for decades, Li (John Woo star Chow Yun Fat, with a new austerity) and Yu Shu Lien (the always soulful and relatable Michelle Yeoh, Oscar-nominated now playing a multiverse-hopping laundromat owner). The soulfulness of this couple is hard to resist and grows through the movie.

The hot young couple on the other hand is one of screen history's most kinetic and vibrant. The girl is Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the rebellious daughter of a provincial governor who has been secretly living as a masked sword fighter. Her beau is the rakish outlaw Lo (Chang Chen), whose long face and wild hair and colorful robes and necklaces are the ultimate sexy Asian shabby chic. The flashback about the romance of Jen and Lo out in the desert which is Lo's queréncia is the most original, different part of Crouching Tiger. They violently play-fight on their horses and off, beating each other up dashingly till they finally dissolve in each other's arms in a passionate kiss after a hot bath in a cave. This is one of the best mime-love stories you'll ever see and my favorite part of the film by a fair margin. When this flashback suddenly ends showing Jen rejecting Lo after he comes to return her jade comb and ask her to come back and she rebuffs him, is the biggest letdown in Chinese movies. But then, our spirits are lifted again when Jen slips away from her upper-bourgeois wedding preparations and speeds, wielding Green Destiny, to dispatch several dozen armed (and buffoonish) thug-warriors in a restaurant that Todd McCarthy, Variety's chief critic at the time, called "an extended episode of hilarious mayhem."

These things are not different from conventional B-Picture wuxia. It's just that they're done with so much more beauty and gloss, and with then state-of-the-art effects. You have to wonder if the effects are better now that computer generated imagery dominates instead of wires - or really worse, more cut off from the reality the dream effects had when they were physically faked.

The two couples are bound together by the 400-year-old sword known as Green Destiny. Li tries to give it away to Li Mu Bai, but then it is stolen by Jen. Zhang Ziyi sparkles like a hot diamond in Crouching Tiger, and is glowing, dynamic and fluid. She proclaims to Lo that she is Manchurian, but she is uneasy about being set up for an arranged marriage. Secretly she is linked with the disreputable outlaw (female again) Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), pretending that she is her nanny or nurse or something. If there is a yucky, evil character, it's Jade Fox, with tragic consequences at the end.

Crouching Tigher, Hidden Dragon has been around so long now it's been the subject of academic studies endlessly and tediously analyzing its relations to history and to traditions and its cinematic technique. But compared to many wuxia and historical Chinese-language films its plot is really not so hard to follow, because the main outlines - the two couples, the rebelliousness, the moral conflicts - are very clear and easy to follow. Thee is much to comment on but above all, it's fun and a pleasant watch, though sad and elegiac at the end. In a way it's elegiac all through, because it's a homage to things and styles and ideas long gone. I was particularly struck this time by the closeups, and the way the faces, particularly those of Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, hold up to the closest scrutiny. These are two actors who know how to stare back at the camera, like the great movie stars of yore, whose pictures' wide appeal this echoes.

Written for the screen by Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo-jung based on the novel serialized in 1941 and 1942 by Wang Dulu. Action staged by Yuen Wo-Ping. Score by Tan Dun (with Yo Yo Ma). Technicolor widescreen dp Peter Pau. Editor Tim Squyres.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 120 mins., debuted out of competition at Cannes May 18, 2000, it received many awards and set many records in the US for a foreign film in accolades and profitability. It received ten Oscar nominations, not equaled by a foreign film till Roma 18 years later. Metacritic rating: 94%. Rereleased in theaters Feb. 17, 2023.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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