(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