|Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Photo by Chan Kam Cheun.|
Ang Lees Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, opening at the end of 2000, has torn up the festival circuit, thrilling audiences and winning the Peoples Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Some breathless early reviews have even gone so far as to suggest that the films gorgeous martial arts set pieces are like nothing anyones seen before a contention that will elicit either laughter or sighs of resignation from fans of the populist Hong Kong (H.K.) cinema of the past two decades. But both reviewers and the hardcore H.K. fans need to relax because it does nothing to diminish Lees achievement to simply say that his film fits firmly within a tradition that is as old as Chinese cinema itself. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great martial arts period epic. And, given the richness of the genre, thats no small feat.
On the surface, Crouching Tiger looks like an odd choice for Ang Lee, who began his career with three comedies of manners about contemporary Taiwanese culture Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and expanded his reputation with two English-language films Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997) that dealt with equivalent concerns in (respectively) English and American settings. While his last release, the Civil War film Ride with the Devil (1999), involved action, it still does not prepare one for the sort of gorgeously choreographed movement that is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragons most breathtaking asset.
"My childhood imagination was mainly fired by the martial arts movies I grew up with," Ang Lee says, "and theres a part of me that feels, unless you make a martial arts film, you are not a real filmmaker."
|Ang Lee photographed by Richard Kern|
Hu born in Beijing, raised in Hong Kong became the first Chinese director to achieve critical recognition in the rest of the world. Most of Hus films were made in Taiwan, and its his influence from his celebration of landscape to his casting of powerful actresses that can be seen throughout Crouching Tiger.
Hus work has at least two other elements that distinguish it from the competition. Where previous action films may have used dance-like movement, Hu recognized that the camera could dance as well. When most straight-out Chinese opera movies were flatly shot, Hu began combining traditionally stylized staging with sweeping camera movement and ingenious cutting. It is no wonder that his combat sequences have a sense of physical grace far beyond, say, the better known and more realistic fighting of Bruce Lee.
Hus other great contribution was to give women equal or superior standing in the world of action. Two of his female leads, Cheng Pei Pei and Hsu Feng, became the first great action heroines. In 1965, Hu made Come Drink with Me (a.k.a. Drunken Hero) for the then-dominant Shaw Brothers studio. This story about a female martial artist (Cheng Pei Pei, who plays the villain Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) working together with a drunken, retired swordsman (think Dean Martin in Rio Bravo) to free her brother from kidnappers was an international hit. The movie is filled with that joyous, inescapable sense of a cinema artist discovering his true voice in one blinding flash of energy. As Lee says, "Martial arts movies are pure cinema energy theyre pure, theyre cool and theyre fun."
Though Hus work declined in the late 70s, his influence became evident among several of the young directors of Hong Kongs so-called "New Wave" Tsui Hark, Ching Siu-Tung and Ronny Yu whose films, along with those of Woo and Jackie Chan, brought popular Chinese-language cinema to unprecedented numbers of Western fans. While some of those H.K. directors have come to Hollywood, their U.S. productions films have usually been compromised by foolish producers and egotistical stars. Ang Lee, having come in through a different door altogether small art-house films has allowed him to build the sort of reputation that has enabled him, ironically enough, to now make an American coproduction that cleaves closer to the tradition of Chinese popular cinema than the American productions of the others who actually are a living part of that tradition.
It is Ang Lees "cross-over" abilities that helped him gather the talent integral to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragons impact cinematographer Peter Pau (Bride with White Hair), martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix, Drunken Master), composer Tan Dun, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and, of course, actors Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, two of the four H.K. stars (along with Jet Li and Jackie Chan) who have become famous in the U.S. Chow and Yeoh are exquisite in their roles as duty-vexed lovers, and their younger counterparts, the lithe Zhang Ziyi (soon to be seen in Tsui Harks Sword of Zu) and the scruffily handsome Chang Chen (Wong Kar-wais Happy Together) double down on the films concern over desire and destiny.
For those versed in recent H.K. action cinema, Crouching Tiger may still feel like an art film. No H.K. director would risk leading off with 15 minutes of quiet exposition and character scenes, as Lee does; a H.K. director would likely have contrived an opening action scene before settling in for the slower stuff. But while some H.K.-movie fans may question this decision, the payoff is worth the wait: the films first action scene is a marvelous nocturnal fight between Yeoh and a masked thief that, in addition to combat, includes "vaulting" a dreamlike form of jumping/flying, in which the actors appear to skim effortlessly up walls and across rooftops. This form of graceful action which implies some sort of spiritual as well as physical development is so alien to most Western eyes that some audiences may titter at first before accepting it as part of the films world.
"The film is not crafted in the realistic style," the director admits, "but the emotions it conveys are real. The drama is itself choreographed as a kind of martial art, where the fighting is never just kicking and punching, but is also a way for the characters to express their unique situation and feelings."
One should credit Lee for trying to make, as producer and co-writer James Schamus puts it, a kind of "Sense and Sensibility with martial arts," but equal credit is due to action master Yuen Wo Ping for the execution (and presumably some of the vision as well). Yuen knows both how to choreograph and shoot an unreal action scene so that humans can believably bring off superhuman movements. Digital effects have begun to show up in Asian action films, but Yuen and his colleagues long ago figured out how to use wire harnesses, slow motion and off-camera springboards and trampolines to create such magical effects without the sort of postproduction trickery that Hollywood is accustomed to.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is far from a simple clone of King Hus best work. Lee and his screenwriters have constructed a stronger narrative context for their action, one that deals with many of the same issues as his earlier films questions of marriage, love, and duty. (Hu seemed to care more about the visuals and the beauty of motion than about plot: even Touch of Zen, his best-known film, can feel like a catalog of favorite images rather than a forward-moving story.) Also not surprisingly, given the thrust of Lees other films he brings a more complex delineation of character and a heightened sense of melodrama.
Lees film is an exhilarating work, filled with invention, but Lee is also clearly paying homage to Hu with some of the films elements. Some are obvious: the casting of Cheng Pei Pei in an action role, as well as the focus on the female characters. (The real conflict here is between Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, playing her younger counterpart.) But there is also the sense of luxuriating in movement and scenery an understanding that fast, hyperkinetic action isnt the only kind. And, a la Hu, Ang Lee and Yuen Wo Pings staging of the films memorable climax with Chow and Zhang swaying atop tall, slender trees suggests that nature itself is a kind of character and that magic movements shine brightest when set in the great outdoors.
Sidebar: Masterpieces of Martial Artistry