Monday 31 December 2018

Movie Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

A martial arts adventure, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a lyrical story of warriors, vendettas and revenge, brightened by magically fluid fight sequences.

In ancient rural China, warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) gives up his legendary sword Green Destiny to his long-time colleague and close friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). He is despondent about being unable to track down assassin Jade Fox, who killed his revered master years ago. On a trip to Beijing, Shu Lien gives the sword to the respected elder Sir Te (Sihung Lung) for safekeeping.

At Sir Te's compound Shu Lien meets the young and strong-willed Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi). She is the daughter of a powerful Governor and about to be ensnared in an arranged marriage, but dreaming of a life of freedom and independence.

Soon Green Destiny is stolen by a masked thief, and before long Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) appears as the thief's mentor, although she is also being stalked by a detective seeking revenge. Mu Bai is hot on Jade's trail, while desert barbarian Dark Cloud (Chang Chen), who has a history with Jen, reappears in her life. Jen has to make a decision to define her destiny, while Mu Bai and Shu Lien head towards a showdown with Jade Fox.

Directed by Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is most notable for flowing, gravity-defying float-on-air action scenes, with plenty of gliding across roofs and wall climbing. Initially distracting, the highly kinetic and exquisitely choreographed balletic showdowns eventually create a mesmerizing new normal, enhancing the mystical ancient world dominated by codes, noble warriors and malevolent assassins.

The film offers a good mixture of character development and action set-pieces. Gradually, Jen's story moves to centre stage, as she stands at the launch point of various life trajectories available to her. Settle down to an arranged marriage, accept a mentor (good or bad), live independently, or join forces with Dark Cloud for a life of wild adventure. Mu Bai, Shu Lien, Jade Fox, Dark Cloud and an unseen and unwanted husband-to-be are enablers, but Jen owns the decisions, and all her choices come with compelling complexities enriching the film's soul.

The in-the-desert flashback interlude introducing Jen and Dark Cloud's backstory takes too long and features plenty of repetition. Better are some moments of humour, including Jen taking on all-comers at a canteena on one of her independence sojourns. Despite the no-mercy combat ethos, Lee avoids almost all displays of blood and genuine pain, keeping the overall mood on the lighter side.

The film features three strong women characters. Michelle Yeoh as Shu Lien takes on the role of cerebral observer and creates the film's sturdy soul. Shu Lien stands on the side of integrity, ready to support Mu Bai's quest and to guide Jen as long as she wishes to be guided.

Zhang Ziyi is a source of coiled energy as Jen, acting with her expressive eyes and cat-like lithe movements as a young woman with the world at her feet, if only she knew which world she wanted to seize. And Cheng Pei-pei as Jade Fox is the dark version of Shu Lien, resentful at women's exclusion from the highest echelon of warrior training and choosing the path of subterfuge to fight back.

Eloquent and graceful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may be set in a bygone era, but is devoted to the timeless conflict between conformance and independence.

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