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Film Review from the Film Gang

January 5th, 2001

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Nickleodeon in Santa Cruz, Ang Lee's latest, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is  a smash hit at the box office, playing to sold-out audiences every day.  This is strange for a film that is in Chinese with English subtitles and that adheres, although very unconventionally, to the stylized conventions of Asian martial chivalry movies.  But Ang Lee specializes in Asian-U.S. cross-over; he directed, among others, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, and, of course, the non cross-over Sense and Sensibility. 

So it's no surprise that an ambitious director like Lee would want to try his hand at a genre film and make it an American success.  And it is.  From the breathtaking cinematography (a fight scene in the tops of the trees in a bamboo forest, for example, or the broad vistas of the Gobi desert) to the expertly choreographed ballet-like martial arts encounters, to the fabulous soundtrack featuring Yo-Yo Ma, this movie captivates and delights whether or not one happens to like martial arts movies.  It is also, like every good epic-romance hybrid, a love story, and the unrealized longing-however sentimental and saccharine it is-makes the scenes between Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat crackle with more than martial expertise.

The story, in some ways, is simple enough. Set perhaps in nineteenth-century China (the reviews all talk about the difficulties the actors had complying with Lee's insistence that they speak perfect classical Mandarin), Li Mu Bai, a master, played by Chow Yun-Fat, decides to retire from his career as a warrior and tries to give up his sword, The Green destiny.  Yu Shu Lien delivers it to the governor for him, whereupon it is stolen by a mysterious thief (Ziyi Zhang), who turns out to be a skillful fighter tutored by the notorious thief and murderer Jade Fox (played by Pei-pei Cheng).  There are various subplots, including the love affair between the Manchu bride-to-be, Jen Yu, and her bandit kidnapper, Lo (Chen Chang), a magical interlude in the Gobi desert that is like a nineteenth-century bourgeois girl's fantasy of freedom. 

Lee also seems to want to do something interesting around gender, and it is here perhaps that the film achieves its greatest triumph as a cross-over.  The genre is pretty masculine for the most part, both in terms of actors and audience, but in Crouching Tiger, three out of maybe four or five of the main characters are women, and they are great fighters too.  The movie explores their aspirations in a context where they are prevented from achieving master status in the domain of martial arts and destined either to be wives-if they submit--or prostitutes, if they choose their freedom.  And here's where some of the irresolvable contradictions in the plot make their appearance.  A friend of mine who works on China mentioned in passing that it's likely that in that period, women who were not Manchu would have had bound feet, which would have made Yu Shu Lien's profession as the head of a security service, not to mention her skills, difficult if not impossible. This adds a late twentieth-century twist to the girl-power aspirations of the story and makes Jade Fox's bitterness and rage a lot more understandable.

The ending of the film is also a little puzzling.  After taking great pains to make sure his U.S. audience understands what's going on, Lee has Jen do a very un-rrriot girl kind of thing, and doesn't bother explaining it to us at all.  I had to go around interviewing my China scholar friends to get it. All in all, though, this movie is beautiful, elegant, and appealing to many who would not ordinarily expose themselves to the genre. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright in 2001 Carla Freccero