Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi
Director: Ang Lee
Martial Arts Choreographer: Yuen Wo Ping
Theatrical release: 2000; available on DVD
Way back in the Y2K era of big millenial events, an amazing film from Hong Kong appeared at the festival in Cannes, capturing both the audience and the award for best foreign film. It was Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a mix of Matrix-like stylized martial arts fight choreography, historical epic, and old-fashioned love story. But it's a lot more magical than such a description may sound. Based on a five-part novel of the same name, author Wang Du Lu does for kung fu movies what J. R. R. Tolkien does for the hero's journey — and gives us the hero's journey, too.
Most Chinese martial arts films that made it to Western screens came through Hong Kong, which, given its status as a British colony until 1997, shouldn't be a surprise. But this is no Bruce Lee knock-off kick-boxing slug-fest. The heroic characters are both female and male. The story is sweeping and engaging at the same time, and the visuals are absolutely stunning.
Known in China as wuxia, martial arts — and martial arts films — carry a mixed and often negative perception in the United States. At least, that was true until The Matrix blew a hole in the back of everyone's head. With more than its "blue pill or red pill" question — including Keanu Reeves clad in black leather and flying slo-mo through intricately choreographed fight scenes — wuxia took on a completely different feel for U.S. audiences. And it opened the way for actual Chinese film directors, such as Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility), to create films from their own history and traditions.
Crouching Tiger was an early entry in the field. It has since been joined by Hero (2002), starring Jet Li (likely providing many Westerners with a new perspective on calligraphy), and 2004's House of Flying Daggers. Interestingly, the common element in all three films is the actress Zhang Ziyi, whose flawless skin and fierce athleticism make her a stunning presence on screen. Less well known in the United States are Hong Kong action film star Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, who may be recognized from the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.
Crouching Tiger's incredible aerial choreography is done by the same martial arts master who gave us an acrobatic Reeves in The Matrix. It's like seeing Cirque du Soliel on steroids. But these films also contain stories that make them worth watching.
The story in Flying Daggers, although filled with twists and turns and things-not-as-they-appear-to-be, is not as satisfying as either Crouching Tiger or Hero. But then, that's just my opinion.
If you've never marveled at the intricate aerial ballet-with-swords of a wuxia film, check out the DVD for Crouching Tiger or put it in your Netflix queue. You'll learn a little about ancient Chinese culture (these are all period pieces), you'll see vibrant scenery and vivid images, and you'll watch seemingly impossible stunts. What a rush!