Before Ang Lee's foray into Chinese martial arts movies, the Wuxia film genre had only enjoyed a small cult following in the West. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it hit the mainstream. Steeped in the tradition of Wuxia, and fully celebratory of its genre's over-the-top conventions, Ang Lee's 2000 masterwork plays perfectly as an action-packed and rousing martial arts movie. That alone would be enough to champion this movie, but through sheer craftsmanship, Ang Lee and his collaborators have created something for which the word "transcendent" is meant. Crouching Tiger mines from its pulp heritage, a type of metaphysical artistry. The action is not just exciting, it is endlessly and exquisitely creative. The scenery is not just pretty, it is otherworldly in its beauty. The characters and story are not just interesting, they are inspirational.
Crouching Tiger is a classic romantic adventure, and while I have little experience with Chinese martial arts cinema, I assume its story sticks closely to well worn genre traits. Based on a book by Wang DuLu, the story centers around two women, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a veteran Wuxia warrior and Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang) a princess who dreams of living free of her upper class life, and their respective loves, the master warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and the renegade outlaw "Dark Cloud" (Chen Chang). In Jen's journey of self discovery, Li's philosophical meditation, and Yu Shu's liberating romance, the course is set for a sweeping, large-scale adventure.
Crouching Tiger is exactly that; a rousing action fantasy full of fun and thrills. What's more is that it is also a stirring emotional experience. The three principle characters are effortlessly magnetic on screen. Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh deliver the finest work of their careers here as lifelong friends and repressed lovers, and Zhang Ziyi is enchanting in the role that turned her into a Chinese sensation overnight. The story of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one that snuck up on me emotionally. There is a good deal of talky time spent discussing the plot of a stolen sword and a mysterious Jade Fox character, as well as a long flashback that apparently does little to forward the plot. The emotions are relatively understated for the first two-thirds of the movie, so when the character resolutions finally hit, they feel like body blows. The movie very subtly builds its themes and endears us to its characters. It is a remarkable feat of storytelling from scriptwriters Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus and Kuo Jung Tsai.
Perhaps the most remarkable of Crouching Tiger's many remarkable elements are its martial arts action scenes. Under Ang Lee's direction, Peter Pau's photography and Yeun Woo-Ping's sensational fight choreography are given an elegant, mystical energy. The action in Crouching Tiger sings like nothing I've ever seen before. It is so fast, so inventive, so ceaselessly exciting, that it becomes more than just action. There is something hypnotic about its juxtaposition of sublime craftsmanship and pulpy cheesiness. It's enough that the fight scenes are perfect from a technical standpoint, but the tone here strikes the perfect balance of camp, fun, and danger. I've seen a lot of great action movies. None of them left my jaw on the floor every time the swords clash. Crouching Tiger did.
If story and action weren't enough, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also excels in each and every one of the technical departments. The costumes, sets, and sound all radiate quality. The production values in Crouching Tiger are lightyears beyond its drive-in schlock cousins. Peter Pau's cinematography, which won him the most deserved Oscar in the history of the award, is a top-to-bottom perfect showcase of what a great cinematographer can do. Crouching Tiger is beyond beautiful to look at. The streets of Beijing, the vast Gobi desert, and the lush, green Bamboo forests are just a few of the standout locations in Crouching Tiger and Pau photographs them in a way that makes them feel like characters unto themselves.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an extraordinary piece of film. Plenty of movies claim to have "something for everyone", but few are able to master dozens of elements the way Crouching Tiger does. This is one of the great art house films ever made and also one of the great action spectaculars. How delightfully crazy is that to think? What Ang Lee has done with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is create pure art from the basic elements of a genre mostly accepted as meaningless junk. It's miraculous. Any way you look at it, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is magical.