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Action Alphabet: 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'

Martial arts movies, for the most part, serve as vehicles to show off fight choreography. Even if you have seen and disliked a movie from the genre, it is obvious, in the objective sense, why films are built around the various elaborate styles of fighting – because they are as impressive as fast as they are sharp and beautiful and ultimately a glorious display of skill. Anyone familiar with the work of director Ang Lee before he made Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000 probably thought that his making a kung fu movie was a hugely curious thing – aside from the cultural connection, why would a man who made movies like The Ice Storm and Sense & Sensibility want to make a film based in such a stereotypically superficial genre, and for that matter would it be any good? But with this seminal film, Lee proved that he had wonderfully sweeping and romantic point of view to offer the world of cinema, integrating the fantastical violence with his signature portrayals of subtle albeit great emotion – he gave his audience a movie with fights as magical and poignant as its scenes of quiet romance. Its power can best be summed up by a story told by Roger Ebert in his original review of the films: “It stirred even the hardened audience at the 8:30 a.m. press screening at Cannes… there is a sequence near the beginning of the film involving a chase over rooftops, and as the characters run up the sides of walls and leap impossibly from one house to another, the critics applauded, something they rarely do during a film.”

Photos from 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'
Photos from 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'
Michelle Yeoh in 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'

The story follow legendary fighter and swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) who, in attempt to purge his life of violence and death, decides to bequeath his equally legendary sword the Green Destiny to his friend Sir Te, asking his dearest friend and fellow skilled warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to transport the sword. While in the home of Sir Te, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the bright-eyed and curious daughter of a visiting governor. One night, an agile thief steals the sword from Sir Te despite Shu Lien’s attempts to stop it. Mu Bai arrives soon after and with the help of Shu Lien, investigates the theft, discovering that the thief is staying in the governor’s house and that Jen is more than she appears to be. Inspired by her amazing fighting skills, Mu Bai tries to figure a way to help Jen become the fighter that she has the potential to be – but she runs away. The rest of the story and the encompassing subplots are beautiful and elaborate, full of soul and emotional grace, as only an Ang Lee film would deliver (I’ve already forgiven him for Hulk) – but this isn’t a series about personal connection, its about the glory of action…

In the majority of wuxia wire-fu movies, actors are suspended as such to give them more freedom of movement with less risk of danger. In most cases it comes off looking flashy and contrived, but in this case, with the help of master stunt fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, the look and feel of the movement is used to its advantages to add mystique and poise, freeing it of its usual ridiculousness. It helps a great deal also that, unlike with American and European actors, the stars of this film are not only already intense and brilliant martial artists but also do most if not all of their own stunt work. Also unlike a lot of action movies, it is nearly impossible to choose a favorite action sequence – as the movie progresses, the fights are delivered with power but all with their own unique identity. In a pinch, I would probably choose either Jen’s fight in the tavern with the gang of travelling warriors, both cheeky and empowering, or Jen’s last fight with Shu Lien where the former wields the Green Destiny and the latter wields an array of varied weaponry…but they really are all great. Whenever I watch this movie and its breathtaking action sequences, it really does make me sad: why is it that there are no other martial arts films like this one, as intriguing as it is inventive? There are some that have come close, such as 2002’s Hero and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers (both featured the sharp talents of the lovely Zhang Ziyi), but there has not been a film yet to match all of the achievements of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Fingers crossed for the sequel…