Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long)


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Defying gravity is all in a day's work in China.

(2000) Martial Arts (Sony Classics) Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Yang, Chen Chang, Sihung Lung, Cheng Pei-Pei, Fa Zeng Li, Xian Gao, Yan Hai, De MIng Wang, Li Li, Su Ying Huang, Jin Ting Zhang, Rei Yang, Kai Le, Jian Hua Feng. Directed by Ang Lee

Every so often a movie comes along that changes all the rules. People’s perceptions, not only of a certain genre of movies, but sometimes of themselves, of their culture, of other cultures are given a forced re-examination because of work so thought-provoking, so emotionally stimulating, that it can’t be ignored.

For a very long time, martial arts movies had been ghettoized as “chop sockey,” ridiculed as “B” movies or worse, and dismissed except for loyal cultists who knew better. Those of us who had seen such classics as The Killers, Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story can appreciate the ballet of the fight scenes while often overlooking horrible, dubbed dialogue, bargain basement plots and other low-budget thrills.

Hollywood discovered these movies as well and before long directors (John Woo) and actors (Jackie Chan, Jet Li) crossed over to American mainstream awareness. Their successes, however, pale in comparison with this magnificent film.

Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) uses as his source the fourth novel in a five-novel cycle by Wang Dulu. Set during the 19th-Century Qing Dynasty, we are introduced to a legendary swordsman named Li Mu Bai (Fat, perhaps the best pure actor ever to come from Asia). He has tired of his violent profession and wishes to retire to a more contemplative lifestyle. To facilitate this, he intends to give his sword — the Green Destiny — to someone more worthy. Because he’s not sure who will wind up with it, he asks his good friend Shu Lien (Yeoh) who it should go to. She recommends an honest civil servant named Sir Te (Lung). Lien, a warrior who has made a reputation of her own, delivers the sword, only to see it stolen.

Eventually, suspicion points to the house of the governor, whose precocious daughter Jen (Ziyi) has bonded with Shu. The evidence points to Jade Fox; a ruthless bandit who murdered Li’s master in order to steal the manual of his order’s fighting style. This brings Li back into the fray, not only to recover his sword but to avenge his master’s death.

This may sound like a rather pedestrian action movie, but the weak description above merely scratches the surface of what the movie is really about. It is a love story, driven by two couples (one of whom is not revealed until nearly halfway through the movie). It is also a study of the Chinese culture and renders less inscrutable the face of China.

The twists and turns here are so intricate that to go into them would be confusing and moreover, would ruin several pleasant surprises that dot the film. Suffice to say that while Li and Shu appear to be the leads, they are not. The cinematography is breathtaking, filmed in mainland China. It is easy to see why many consider it the most beautiful country on the planet. The characters move about stunning vistas of forest, mountain, and desert. As a sheer travelogue, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be worth seeing.

 The action sequences are fabulous. The intricacy of the swordplay, the graceful leaps (some find the wire-aided flying about unbelievable — these people should probably stick to The Dukes of Hazzard), the fists moving at warp speed, make for a dazzling display. The thing to remember here is that martial arts, in China, are arts the same way ballet is in the west. They are never more of an art than in this movie.

The characterizations are superb. Each of the characters move through this story with their own motivations. The characters who are the “good guys” have weaknesses of character that make it easy for us to relate to them. Similarly, the “bad guys” have motivations that render them sympathetic. Director Lee has always been uncanny at capturing the female viewpoint; hence it is no surprise that the female characters (Jen, Shu and Jade Fox) are better drawn and more interesting than the male characters – Li, Sir Te, the outlaw Dark Cloud (Chang).

The acting is awesome. Chow Yun Fat can hold his own against anybody, including guys like De Niro, Hanks, Washington and Pacino. His troubled warrior could easily have netted him an Oscar nomination, although it was one of the few awards for which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wasn’t nominated. Michelle Yeoh, who first appeared on American screens in Tomorrow Never Dies and has been a staple here ever since, is lustrous and holds her own, action-wise, with the men.

There is a scene between her and Chow Yun Fat, near the end of the movie, in which the two are drinking tea in an exquisite mountain setting, where much of the truth about their past relationship is revealed, and the regrets that come through in both actors makes it one of the most magical movie moments ever. Zhang Ziyi is a name that may become familiar to a lot of us; her performance here is one of the most evocative in the film. I hope and pray Western casting directors take note of it.

This was, by far, the best movie of 2000 and in my opinion, one of the top ten best ever. All the positive press you’ve heard about it? It’s an understatement. This is a movie you owe it to yourself to see. Forget the teen drivel, the patently silly romantic weepies, the cliche action flicks and the recycled comedies and dramas and put this at or near the top of your must-see list. You’ll thank me for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Simply put, one of the best movies ever made. Gorgeous scenery, impeccable acting, impressive martial arts action.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wire work may put some off.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of martial arts violence and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: Not only was it the first foreign language film to earn over $100M in box office in the United States, it still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a non-English language film to this day with ten.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an interview with Michelle Yeoh well after the fact in which she discusses her role in the film and how it’s affected her career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $213.5M on a $17M production budget; the movie was an enormous worldwide blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Way

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Cast Away


Cast Away

Tom Hanks gets primitive.

(2000) Drama (DreamWorks/20th Century Fox) Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Chris Noth, Nick Searcy, Garret Davis, Vince Martin, Jenifer Lewis, Geoffrey Blake, Lari White, David Allen Brooks, Paul Sanchez, Peter von Berg, Dmitri S. Boudine, Semion Sudarikov. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

The poet said that no man is an island, but that is not so. In fact, every person is an island. We are not Borg either with the thoughts of millions in our heads; we are alone inside our skulls, and though we may share space and intimacy with others, at the end of the day it is ourselves we are alone with, no matter what the situation.

For Chuck Noland (Hanks), an executive and troubleshooter for FedEx, the situation is always chaos, perpetual motion on a stopwatch. He travels the world for FedEx, helping various branches become models of efficiency in processing packages for delivery. After a successful stint in Russia, he returns home to a well-deserved holiday break andan adoring girlfriend (Hunt) to whom he pops the question just as he is getting on a plane to put out another fire halfway around the world.

Life, according to John Lennon, is what happens when you’re making plans. In Noland’s case, life is a terrifying plane crash into a stormy sea. Noland eventually washes ashore on a deserted island, but unlike Gilligan and his crew, there are no huts, no supplies of food and no ingenious professors who can do anything except build a shortwave radio. The island is barren, a great big rock in the South Pacific.

After the initial shock, Noland slowly begins to realize that there will be no quick rescue. In certain Hollywood movies, Noland would be an ex-Army Ranger who can survive on a cantaloupe and a thimble for thirty days; in Cast Away, he has few survival skills other than an insatiable will to live, and a picture of his fiancée to motivate him. Chuck mustreinvent himself on a primitive level in order to survive; he must become food gatherer, fire bringer and water bearer. He must survive heat and storm, loneliness and depression, hunger and thirst. He also must survive a tooth that has been bothering him for months and threatens to get infected. He must learn to carry hope with him like a wallet, and fend off the madness slowly encroaching into his mind.

As time goes by, Noland is able to just get by, but even through his dementia he realizes that if he remains on the island he will eventually die. To avoid that, he begins devising a daring escape, using flotsam from the crash and other debris washed up by the sea.

The great majority of the movie takes place on the island. Most of the movie is just Hanks, without music or very much dialogue. Few actors could pull it off, but Hanks again gives an Oscar-nominated performance (the most recent one on his resume to date) that transcends traditional movie logic. If you described to a studio suit a movie with the situation just described, he would undoubtedly respond with have your people call his people, let’s do lunch and don’t let the door hit you in the drawers on the way out.

In this case, the director, Robert Zemeckis, and the star, Tom Hanks, had a certain amount of stroke (considering the previous time they teamed up they delivered Forrest Gump it isn’t hard to see why) and the two had the presence of mind to seek out DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg’s company, to co-distribute. They also had the might of 20th Century Fox behind them.

The results are an amazing movie, full of splendor, beauty and tension. Hanks is perfect in the role. If it were Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson on this beach, you’d expect them to survive. For Hanks, the modern equivalent of Jimmy Stewart, the boy next door is in real deep kimchee in this situation. The movie works because you believe it. During the escape sequence, when Noland’s companion, Wilson, parts, it is an extremely moving moment. Da Queen had a box of hankies for that one.

The movie takes place in three distinct sequences, and as has been noted elsewhere, constituted a break in filming while Hanks emaciated himself and Zemeckis went on to make What Lies Beneath. Our world is full of noise, frenetic motion, a busy cornucopia of career and personal life. The island is quiet, paced as the waves lapping against the shore. Time dilates into a distant memory here. Even the watch won’t work.

On a different level, however, the movie is about time and how we use it — and how it can be taken away from us. Time is a funny thing; it enslaves us, it is a brutal taskmaster but to a very real extent it defines us as well. It is about survival, what we can manage to accomplish in a desperate situation. It is about the island that is all of us. Some of us are rocky promontories in the Pacific; others are Oahu. Either works.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the first great movies of the 21st Century. Another Oscar-caliber performance from Hanks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle part of the film on the island has no music or dialogue which can be disconcerting for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some disturbing sequences here, particularly the plane crash and the body of the pilot arriving on the island.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Chuck Noland names his volleyball companion Wilson after the sporting goods manufacturer. Tom Hanks is married to Rita Wilson, and played a character named Kip Wilson in “Bosom Buddies.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a Charlie Rose interview with Hanks, as well as feature-length documentaries on real live survival situations (and how survival experts put writer William Broyles through a survival course) and on the island that was used to film the South Pacific sequences – both are extraordinarily interesting. These are, strangely enough, only available on the 2 Disc DVD edition; they are missing from the Blu-Ray edition which does have a trivia track if you’re into such things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $429.6M on a $90M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: That Evening Sun