“A sword by itself rules nothing. It only comes alive in skilled hands.”
This is possibly the most recognisable foreign language film of the new millennium. It was the first to ever break $100million at the American box office and it was pretty unavoidable when it was released. Yet somehow, I found a way to avoid it. I’m not averse to subtitles, I don’t mind a bit of the old kung-fu and I had no reason to wait 14 years to see it. But for some reason I did. And I don’t know if the years of building it up in my head really helped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
I don’t want that to sound like I didn’t like it or didn’t think it was a pretty amazing piece of film making. I did, and it is. It’s just hard to not let the hype build something up a little too much in your head, even if you wait a decade and a half after that hype died down.
Full of prophecies, destiny, legends and lore, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon piles on every cliché you’d expect from a kung-fu, period, fantasy movie. And it’s all pretty great. Chow Yun-Fat’s Master Li arrives in town, desperate to off load his sword, Green Destiny, and give up his ass kicking ways. He catches up with Yu (Michelle Yeoh) and it’s obvious there’s some serious repressed love between the two.
Soon, his sword is stolen by Cheng Peri-Pei as Jade Fox, Li’s arch enemy who not so long ago killed his master. Jade Fox also has a young apprentice as kicker who Master Li decides is the rightful heir to Green Destiny, if he can train her to use it for good.
All this, plus a doomed Romeo and Juliette style romance between the young Governor’s daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), and desert outlaw Black Cloud (Chang Chen). All that is to say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not lacking in characters or stories. And like the abundance of fantasy clichés, it’s actually a case where quantity and quality aren’t mutually exclusive.
The performances are kind of wooden, but even then, that’s the perfect match for the stories being told. No one can be natural when delivering the kind of convoluted, mystical mumbo jumbo this movie is built on. So if you can’t be natural, you might as well own it and be overly serious and sincere.
I haven’t seen much wire work before now. And by “not much”, I mean I don’t think I’ve seen any. So I have no idea if this is the technique at its pinnacle, or if it’s a watered down, subpar version, designed to not freak out a western audience, but I found it amazing. Running up bamboo trees, a complete disregard for gravity and physics, running up walls and floating (more than jumping) across enormous distances. It looks totally fake, yet totally kick ass at the same time. And like the wooden acting that sells the clunky dialogue, the same straight faced approach to this implausible action completely sells that lunacy too.
It’s ludicrous, it’s cheesy, it’s over the top, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does all of these things in the best possible way. I totally understand why it was such a mainstream hit on release and my biggest disappointment with the move is that I didn’t see it then, to get swept up in the hype along with everyone else.