Despite its massive success at the Oscars and the box office, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has long been quite high on my List of Movies I Shamefully Haven’t Seen. As I consider myself a fan of martial arts and samurai movies, I figured it was about time that I finally gave this one a watch. What I discovered is that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a stunningly beautiful movie, full of bold colors, intricate costumes and some of the most impressive fight scenes in a martial arts film; however, as my expectations were perhaps too high or misplaced, I nevertheless felt that this movie fell just a little bit short for me.
In 19th century China, legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) trusts his great secret love Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver his sword — Green Destiny — to their old trusted friend Sir Te (Sihung Lung). Soon afterwards, the sword is stolen by a mysterious martial arts warrior, leaving Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien to join together in the hunt for Green Destiny and its thieves. Well written and full of passion, the screenplay was based on the fourth novel of Wang Du Lu’s very successful series, The Crane/Iron Pentalogy. While it sells itself as a martial arts story, it feels much more like a poetic love story.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a feast for the eyes on a number of levels. The costumes of Sir Te and his high class guests, by the amazing Tim Yip, are intricate and rich with vibrant colors. The sets themselves are detailed and colorful, as there is an air of calm or ease of flow in almost every scene. Even the characters themselves are part of the visual artistry, as they seem to fly, float, and glide during action sequences. For the most part, this made for a captivating fight scene, but I found it a bit too showy at times. While I knew there was to be an element of mysticism in this story, I think I was still unprepared for it: I found myself impressed by the enchanting fight scenes, and at the same time wanted to just see a gritty, badass samurai sword fight. In other words, this might just be a problem of unrealistic expectations.
What is undeniable about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though, is that despite the lack of grittiness, it still has some of the most stunning fight scenes ever put to film. Shockingly, all of the actors did their own stunts and fights, and the only CGI used was to erase the cables from which they were suspended. You read that right: that famously breathtaking scene where Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi run and fight on the top of thin bamboo trees is 100% legit. More impressively, even though Chow Yun-Fat was a very popular action star in Asia, this was his first martial arts film; throw in the fact that Zhang Ziyi has a ballet background and not a martial arts background, and each and every fight scene becomes more impressive. Not to be overshadowed, however, Michelle Yeoh has my favorite performance in the film. As Yu Shu Lien, she is an accomplished fighter and a strong, silent hero. Most of my favorite performances tend to be strong powerful women, and hers is a less showy and more dignified character than most. In fact, as impressive as the above mentioned fight scene is, I much preferred seeing Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh go head to head in her studio — in part because it has more of a traditional martial arts feel.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the only martial arts film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. In fact, it walked away with four of the 10 Oscars for which it was nominated, and reviews were very positive among critics and my friends alike. However, I still found myself merely liking it, rather that out-and-out loving it. This is due in part to unrealistic expectations, as well as my predisposed indifference to its director, Ang Lee. I believe he is a talented director, but it feels to me like his ego is seeping through the screen as though he’s constantly trying to prove that he is the best by being very showy in his execution. I feel the same about all of his films, which I realize is very unfortunate (what can I say? It’s a Keri-ism). I also have the same theory about Martin Scorsese, and I can’t really explain it much better than that. Sadly, this Keri-ism makes this movie a little less appealing to me, but please don’t let it detract from you giving it a watch. It is a beautiful film, and worth your time.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon landed at #592 out of 1354 movies on my Flickchart. That converts to a rating of 3 out of 5 stars or 56%. It is ranked #127 out of 410 movies I have seen from the 2000s, and it is ranked #16 out of 19 movies I have seen so far in this challenge.