movie film review | chris tookey

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Wu Hu Zang Long / Gua Hu Chang Long / Wo Hu Cang Long / Wo Hu Chang Long

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  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Wu Hu Zang Long  / Gua Hu Chang Long  / Wo Hu Cang Long  / Wo Hu Chang Long Review
Tookey's Rating
7 /10
Average Rating
8.13 /10
Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Zi Yi
Full Cast >

Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung. Based on the novel by Wang Du Lu

Released: 2000
Origin: China / Hong Kong / Taiwan / USA
Colour: C
Length: 120

A modern mediaeval fantasy, The Matrix with magic, Sense and Sensibility with swordplay.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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On the one hand is Sense, represented by two middle-aged fighters who correspond to Knights Errant in Arthurian legend. The man (played by Hong Kong action veteran Chow Yun Fat) is an undefeated warrior who hopes to hang up his sword, the Excalibur-like Green Destiny, and seems about to declare his love for his female counterpart (Michelle Yeoh, pictured).

Both have exhausted themselves in the service of Right. Each has learned to repress the softer emotions and live according to a strict code of obedience to a social and religious code.

But just as they are ready to settle for a meditative domesticity, into their lives somersaults Sensibility, in the form of a fearsome, passionate and more athletic warrior. She's a young noblewoman called Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) who refuses to be married off to a wealthy man she does not love. She steals the older warrior's sword.

Jen has learned martial arts from her governess (Cheng Pei-Pei ) who also happens to be a renowned thief and murderess called Jade Fox. And Jen has savoured free love and passion with a dreadlocked desert bandit (Chang Chen). An account of this torrid affair is wedged into the middle of the movie, as a wildly romantic, twenty-minute flashback that owes much to the silent movies of Rudolph Valentino.

Will the middle-aged warriors stroll off together into the oriental sunset? And will they persuade the lovely Jen to turn her back on Bonnie-and-Clyde style criminality and join them on the path towards peace and righteousness?

In the early stages, you may find it hard to care. The characters are thin enough to have been torn from a comic-strip, and their dialogue is stilted. It's a bit like a Star Wars movie in which all the characters speak like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The pace sags between action set-pieces, and if you feel your eyelids weighing heavy you won't be alone. During the first hour, I was reminded of those Fred Astaire movies of the Thirties where you wish the actors would stop chatting and get on with the dancing.

The central weakness of the picture is that it doesn't know who the leading protagonist really is. Lee does his best to endow its young anti-heroine with mythic grandeur. Zhang Zi Yi, the 19 year-old actress from Zhang Yimou's The Road Home, is gorgeous to look at. And the most memorable and certainly the funniest sequence shows the young anti-heroine Jen destroying a bar full of tough guys in the ultimate bar-room brawl. But even by the end she hasn't achieved much self-awareness or maturity.

Indeed, she remains so annoyingly callow and narcissistic that you may feel that Ang Lee has been guilty of devoting far too much screen-time to a very silly girl.

The most moving aspect of the story is also the most ponderously written: the love story between the two middle-aged warriors. Chow Yun-Fat is only adequate as the impassive, male half. It is Michelle Yeoh (best known in the west as a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies) who shows herself to be a marvellously subtle, transparent screen actress.

Whereas Jen comes across as pretentious and pampered, the older woman has considerable pathos as a self-reliant wanderer who would like nothing better than to settle down with the man she loves. Her story carries a thought-provoking, if profoundly conservative message about whether true freedom is possible without some sense of duty and one's "proper" place in society. The movie interestingly captures both the appeal of feminism and its limitations.

A feminist backlash to this film is almost certain to follow, when the full extent of its conservatism becomes better appreciated. And its enemies could well describe it, cruelly but not wholly unreasonably, as a martial arts movie for pseuds.

And yet… this movie is literally wonderful, for it is full of wonders. There are things in it that no one has seen before, in the cinema or outside it. It would be worth seeing a couple of times for the action sequences alone, beginning with a thrilling chase up the walls and along the rooftops of mediaeval Beijing, in which the actors dance, fly and somersault like Nureyev and Olga Korbut in their prime performing a homicidal Swan Lake.

Martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping did marvellous work getting Keanu Reeves to look animated in The Matrix. His work here is even more jaw-dropping, and far more thoroughly meshed with the actors' real-life athleticism and character development. They reveal themselves through the way they move; and fluid camerawork and gorgeous lighting endow them with a magical quality that is unsurpassed in cinema.

Indeed, it would be worth seeing merely for its use of locations. The story of burgeoning youthful passion is set, to stunning visual effect, in the yellow, ochre and orange wastes of the Gobi desert, in the north of China. The amazing, gravity-defying showdown is in - or rather on top of - the bamboo forest at Anji, towards the south, in a thousand shades of green.

Lee has never made a bad film, from the domestic comedy of Eat Drink, Man Woman and The Ice Storm through to the action of Ride With The Devil. A Taiwanese who has spent his working life in America, he is steeped in both oriental and western film, and he draws not only from kung fu movies and Kurosawa, but also from the best of John Ford and David Lean.

Ang Lee creates a mythic China of breathtaking scenery, scintillating swordplay and the kind of athleticism that would make the winner of an Olympic gold medal weep with envy. This is not as perfect as some critics would have you believe, but it's brave, imaginative and exhilarating.

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