An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
PUBLISHED: 08:02 02 December 2017 | UPDATED: 17:20 02 December 2017
Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; dir: Ang Lee; starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen. Cert: 12 (2000)
When the martial arts movie first made its presence felt in western cinema in the early 1970s and made huge stars of action heroes like Bruce Lee and later Jackie Chan, it operated in a rough, tough, urban landscape.
It was essentially an action extension of the gangster movie that was so popular at the time. Hong Kong replaced New York but the corruption and the seediness remained the same. The stories were often tales of a lone warrior, seeking honour and revenge for some past injustice.
Cheaply and quickly made, these films were cinema’s punk movies. The stories were little more than an excuse to string together some jaw-droppingly spectacular action sequences. As a result films like Enter The Dragon and Way of the Dragon were incredibly popular and made a huge impression on a new generation of film-makers like Quentin Tarantino.
In the 1980s as the martial arts film moved to video, it stayed stuck in a cheap B movie landscape. It could be argued that Hollywood by creating its own stars in Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, took the martial arts movie away from the Far East. It certainly had no interest in exploring the origins, history or romance to be found in the art-form – which is what makes the global success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such a welcome surprise.
Ang Lee has always been an eclectic film-maker, refusing to be tied down to genre or subject matter. In his career he has gone from a Hong Kong cooking drama in Eat Drink Man Woman, to tales of the wild west in Ride With The Devil, a stunning adaptation of Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility, erotic drama in Lust Caution, the first mainstream gay blockbuster in Brokeback Mountain and a surreal exploration of the imagination in The Life of Pi.
So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he would turn his attention to the martial arts movie and equally it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he wanted to do something different with it. He wanted to use the mythology behind the martial arts movement to explore something of the history of the Chinese people. He wanted to create a mystical, magical tale that brought out the romance and the character of Chinese history and Chinese culture.
He also wanted to make a movie where women were active players in the story. They were no longer to be damsels in distress in need of rescue or pretty pieces of human set dressing – they were going to be strong, independent individuals who would be in the very heart of the action.
Ang Lee’s greatest achievement is that he took the conventions of the martial arts movie and refreshed them for a new audience in a new age. He took the martial arts film from the gangster ghetto and gave it a new home in both the art house cinema and the multiplex.
He created a genuine crossover movie which was enjoyed by festival audiences at Cannes, by the martial arts die-hards and the Saturday night blockbuster crowd. The secret to the film’s astonishing success is Lee’s extraordinary attention to detail; having an engaging story, making sure the spectacular fight scenes serve the story rather than being an end in themselves, having characters that you care about and harnessing the look and the mysticism afforded by the historical setting. The cinematography is just breathtaking.
Lee was aided by some brilliant casting which tapped into mainstream Chinese cinema as well as the action genre. Michelle Yeoh was a well known martial arts star but her co-stars Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi were mainstream actors. Together they gave the film an added gravitas and a sheen that previous films in that genre lacked.
The story is a surreal blend of a Hollywood western, a mystery-caper movie and a historical epic. The fight sequences have a supernatural elegance to them with the action choreography being supplied by Yuen Wo-Ping, who dreamed up the bullet-time jumps and kicks in The Matrix.
In Crouching Tiger these elegant moves work much as a song and dance routine would in a musical, as a celebration of the fitness and prowess of the performers.
In terms of story, like any good mystery, it’s best if you come to it cold. All you need to know is that someone has stolen a beautiful jade sword and our heroes have to get it back. Then, just sit back and get lost in its exhilarating brilliance.