This movie is a hard sell. It's a special effects heavy martial arts movie. It's a chick-flick romance. It's directed by Ang Lee, the same guy who made Sense & Sensibility and the seventies drama The Ice Storm. Oh, and by the way, it's all in Mandarin Chinese. Assuming you could ever in a million years get a major studio to greenlight this, you'd still be giving the marketing department an uphill battle. Apparently it was a task they were up to because Crouching Tiger just surged past Life is Beautiful to become the most profitable foreign film ever, and is the first movie in a long time to be up for both the Best Picture and the Best Foriegn Film Oscars.
Actually, the marketing department may have done too good a job. Don't get me wrong, the movie is good. It's really good, actually, but it's not exactly what people are going to expect. Some of the ads promise a Matrix-like action fest, and that's not really it. Other ads promise a feminist romance to span the ages, and that's not really it either. And none of the ads mention that it's in Chinese with subtitles.
The story is set in feudal China. It's never exactly clear when it takes place; China's got such a long history, I guess it could anywhere from 500 to 5000 years ago. Michelle Yeoh is an adventurer of some sort, who is put on the trail of a thief who has stolen a very special sword, the Green Destiny. Chow Yun-Fat, the rightful owner of the sword, also gets in on the search, and gradually it is revealed that there is a some history between our two heroes. There is also a spoiled princess (played wonderfully by Ziyi Zhang) who is much more than she seems, and her lover, the leader of a gang of outlaws. If that weren't enough, there is a mysterious assassin named the Jade Fox, who is also interested in the sword. It gets a little difficult to keep up, but there is plenty going on to keep your interest.
For me, this movie had two major things going for it: the fight sequences and the cinematography. The filming is incredible. Sweeping vistas, lush forests, towering mountains, vast deserts. I had no idea that China had so much diversity. Put together with the score, this movie is entrancing. The fight scenes are some of the best I have ever seen. There is a fight in a bar in which Zhang, who can't weigh over 90 lbs., takes out a whole gang of toughs. One battle between Yeoh and Zhang employs nearly every medieval edged weapon you can think of, and choreography you won't believe is possible. In fact, a lot of it isn't possible. See, and this is much less cheesy than it sounds in writing, they kind of fly. Flying isn't really the word for it; it's more like dancing in air. The fights range from rooftops to treetops, and if you can get past the fact that they are suspended from wires, you'll be enchanted.
Zhang Zi-Yi and Chang Chen in Sony Pictures Classics' Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - 2000
Where this movie runs into difficulty is in between the fight scenes and incredible vistas. There is a lot of talking. Considering that Ang Lee directed this, it's not surprising. The Ice Storm was nothing but talking. It went on and on and on. I kept wondering when the storm was going to come along and shut these people up. This movie isn't that bad, but the talking isn't really the problem. It's the translation. Or, at least I think it's the translation. Since I don't speak Chinese, I really don't have any idea if it was a bad translation or not, but the dialogue doesn't really sparkle, and I kept feeling like I was missing something. I think my problem is that I happened to watch this movie in a packed theater, filled with people who obviously did speak Chinese. The characters would have these fairly innocuous conversations and everybody around me would bust up laughing. So I'd laugh too; you know, pretending I got the joke, but it was obvious I didn't.
Aside from that complaint, Crouching Tiger is definitely worth seeing. It made honorable mention on my 10 Best Films list. It would have made the list if I could have been assured that I was getting the real script and not some part time busboy/subtitle technician's interpretation of it. Crouching Tiger is truly something different in a movie season full of typical car chases and gross-out extravaganzas. It's a movie with action and romance; pizzazz and grace, and it won't stay hidden for long. Grade: A-
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is rated PG-13 for violence.
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