Director Ang Lee’s sweeping masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, takes its title from the meaning of an old Chinese proverb, implying that situations are often not exactly as they seem.
In this case, however, the kung fu movie formula is not just other than it seems, it is so much more than it seems. Is it a Hong Kong-style martial arts film? Well, yes, it has all the popular elements, including intricate combat scenes and themes of honor, betrayal and revenge, but it also has the scope and depth of an epic tragedy poignant enough to rival Romeo and Juliet. Couple this with aesthetics, grace and pacing to humble many art films, and even humor that goes from subtle and shy all the way to goofy, and you have a rare film that never loses its confidence, charm or emotional honesty.
Tiger‘s beautifully interwoven story lines revolve around the ideas of love and freedom, either yearned for and unattained, or tragically unrecognized when they offer themselves unbidden. Set in a slightly idealized version of 18th-19th century China, the movie features Chow Yun Fat as Li Mu Bai, a wise warrior who decides to put up his sword, ending a life of bloodshed to begin one of peace and fulfillment. The sword, a shining, singing creation named Green Destiny, is no ordinary weapon. Bai entrusts its delivery into retirement to his friend, partner-in-arms and unrequited love, Yui Hsui Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh. Lien fulfills this task, only to have the sword stolen by a young woman, Jen, played by preternaturally talented newcomer Zhang Zi Yi.
A young girl growing up privileged in the compound of a Chinese governor, the soon-to-be-wed Jen desperately desires a taste of the real world she has never known. When she beholds Green Destiny, she beholds a life of freedom and adventure seemingly there for the taking. Her desire to keep the sword and her freedom crashes headlong into Li Mu Bai’s and Yui Hsui Lien’s duty to retrieve it. Bai’s and Lien’s desire to simply love and live in peace must be cast aside to battle Jen, yet they also feel a duty to protect and instruct her in the reality of life’s freedom versus her perception of it.
These conflicts are moments where even the traditional fight scenes of martial arts action films deliver so much more in the hands of Ang Lee, his stellar cast, and the choreography of martial arts master Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix). The combatants run up walls, glide from rooftop to rooftop, and generally soar in a fantastic ballet of evocative conflict that I don’t think has ever before been imagined, let alone achieved. Their flight has an eerie realism, and yet a complete disregard for plausibility that is in the best tradition of fantasy cinema.
So what if this kind of stuff doesn’t really happen? It’s the movies, and these scenes will transport you to a realm where your mind’s eye opens and believes in the joy of a beautiful, undiscovered reality. You don’t have to explain the flight of these larger-than-life characters, and you don’t have to render them plausible with some technical sci-fi mumbo jumbo. The image is justified by the power of its own vision. Their world exists.
In their first fight, Lien repeatedly snatches the young thief Jen out of mid-air, foiling her attempts to ascend by literally keeping her feet on the ground. This visual, kinetically fluid poetry tells you, more swiftly than dialogue ever could, that you can fly, but you can’t soar above the emotional circumstances of your own life. Lien, for her part, shows the restraint of a master when she asks Jen for the stolen sword, never actually taking it by force.
In the clash of wills between these two women, Tiger offers a refreshing chance to have this genre bent to a more female perspective. Both Jen and Lien must face their fears along with the challenges of a traditional, stifling society. As Jen aches for her freedom, her father invokes custom to barter her into a marriage and improve his career. Jen’s awareness of the complete disregard for her soul, for her real life, is heartbreaking as it fuels her repeated leaps toward independence. Lien, also bound by tradition to honor her deceased fianc&233;, keeps her longing for Bai–intense and purified by years of silence–radiant under the surface of her every gesture. Bai’s strong, undeclared love is nurtured, even sustained by Lien, sharpening the emotional impact of their scenes together.
When Jen meets her true love in the form of a desert bandit, Lo, she scarcely knows how to react. You can feel her indecision as she tries to comprehend her situation and maintain some sort of emotional equilibrium. Is it love this man offers her, or another form of imprisonment? Such is her desire to know and be true to herself, that she’s not sure of her love, her counterpart, when he’s right in front of her.
But how could she? So young and inexperienced, the ferociously self-possessed, Jen illuminates us all. Stumbling forward in her breathtaking skill, seeing everything and yet so little, Jen is heroic in her loyalty to her own heart and mind, even if she’s not always sure what they counsel. She clings to what capacities she has, wielding Green Destiny with a blazing strength and purpose that leaves no room for doubt. Jen duels with Lien, Bai and even her own feelings of love for the space, the time, the autonomy to fulfill her ambition and decide her fate. But in Jen’s life, as in all tragedies, it seems that her fate has already been decided. The power, beauty and sadness of human destiny are implicit in every living moment of this film, and the sublime genius of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is that we rise on wings and savor the entire, wrenching truth of it.