[Written for The Stranger]
The courtyards and compounds on display in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pare elegant yet stifling domains, warmly beautiful but so hushed you can practically see the sounds being absorbed into the darkly lacquered wood. There’s no surprise, in these places, that legendary Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) can never declare his love for fellow martial-arts expert Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). When Li arrives at the home of his longtime friend and confesses to her that he’s retiring because his efforts to achieve enlightenment failed (his meditations instead leading him only to “a place of deep silence”), he might be describing the very room that holds their conversation, or even the conversation itself—a series of palpable desires and simmering glances whose meanings are left unspoken.
No longer requiring its service, Li entrusts Yu with his sword Green Destiny, which possesses almost magical flexibility and resilience. In the rigidity of its handlers, Green Destiny makes its purpose vibrantly clear: One has only to draw a hand along its gleaming, jade-encrusted blade for it to quiver and ring out with a chiming demand to be put to use. Apparently someone else agrees—for in the dark of night, a hooded thief enters Yu’s home to steal it. Awakened, Yu rushes out after the thief, spies the criminal … and leaps into the air in pursuit, pushing herself off a wall and taking flight over rooftops.
Until that moment, this has been a world that, despite the specifics of its 19th-century Chinese setting, Ang Lee has documented before. Its characters share the chilly confusion of the sexually and emotionally adrift families in The Ice Storm and the folly of the Confederate fighters in Ride With the Devil, too self-consciously stalwart and mannish to recognize their own childish weaknesses. Yet it’s the director’s conceit this time to wed such emotional reticence with the exhilarating freedom of Hong Kong-genre filmmaking. If the dramatic moments are nearly brusque in their quiet avoidance of passionate outbursts, the action scenes (choreographed by the unparalleled Yuen Wo-Ping), which thrust themselves into the story every 30 minutes or so, are all whirling, explosive motion, clanging swords, and blazing hand-to-hand combat.
Lee can’t quite pull off the combination; for too long a time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s shifting gears only jam, never flowing smoothly from subtle dramatic nuances to outsized, breathtaking action. (“Two films glued together by their bellies,” as Buñuel vividly described Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.) Worse, one suspects that the film’s almost universal acclaim has more to do with his mere attempt to stick these two nearly incompatible moods together, as if the loftier goals of the serious artist had managed to elevate a previously dismissible genre: Certainly the film’s opening chase across housetops—despite the rapturous acclaim it has received from most critics—features clumsy, indifferent wire-work that laughably pogos the actors from roof to roof (and which wouldn’t have been tolerated if Tsui Hark had been behind the camera).
But the film finds its rhythm, and earns the accolades it has received, once it leaves Li and Yu behind. Don’t blame the performers—Chow isn’t given much to do besides glum heroics, though of course he does it to perfection; Yeoh has matured into a remarkable actress, cracking through her stoic façade with moist glances and sad half-smiles, a thousand little signs of pain and longing. As he did in his aforementioned films, however, Lee truly gives his film and heart over to the young, in this case Jen Yu (the engaging Zhang Ziyi), the aristocratic daughter of privilege who has seen the stultifying life of adults, who is about to have that life foisted upon her in a prearranged marriage, but opts instead for the dangerous yet thrilling occupation of a thief. Her purloining of Green Destiny merely foreshadows how thoroughly this unknown actress will come to pilfer the movie away from her famous co-stars.
As Li and Yu continue their morose anti-courtship, it is Jen who winds up controlling the movie, dragging it into a blazing desert for an extended flashback detailing her romance with a brigand (Chang Chen), or leading it off to the forest, where she dispatches a restaurant full of thugs with giddy, spinning-top twirls. However much they fly through the air, the foredoomed adults of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remain all too earthbound; it’s Jen who manages to leap dizzyingly into the void.