[Written for The Herald]
Once upon a time, the Oscars used to give out awards for “Dance Direction.” These days the art of choreography goes mostly unnoticed at Academy Award time.
They should revive the award, or invent a new one, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The award wouldn’t be for dancing, per se, but for the beautifully choreographed martial arts scenes in this hugely enjoyable movie. The fight choreographer is Yuen Wo-Ping, who also designed the kung fu action in The Matrix. His work here is literally breathtaking.
The movie itself isn’t bad either, as the L.A. Film Critics decided when they gave it their best picture nod. Crouching Tiger is the latest film from director Ang Lee, whose career has ping-ponged between Taiwanese films (Eat Drink Man Woman) and American pictures (Sense and Sensibility and last year’s underrated Ride With the Devil). As Lee himself has described it, Crouching Tiger blends the quiet emotional shifts of his Jane Austen film with the spectacle of a kung fu saga. The result is electric.
The rather complicated story is set in ancient China. Perhaps one of the reasons it is sometimes confusing is its source: Crouching Tiger is based on the fourth volume of a five-book series by the 20th-century Chinese author Wang Du Lu. The tale begins with a very special sword. Chow Yun Fat, star of the recent Anna and the King, plays an expert martial artist. Ready to give up fighting, he confers his mighty sword upon an old friend (Michelle Yeoh, from the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies). These two people share a passionate but mostly unspoken bond, which will remain on simmer for the entire movie.
The sword is stolen by a mysterious hooded figure. Yeoh gives chase. This battle, at night, is quite possibly the most thrilling fight sequence in the history of film. It takes flight, literally, by virtue of the actors being suspended from wires (later digitally erased from the image), which allows them to soar over each other’s heads, or skim along rooftops like stones being skipped across water.
The other main characters in the movie include a young princess (sensational newcomer Zhang Ziyi, a former dancer), who dreams of a life of adventure instead of the arranged marriage she is facing. In a very long flashback, we learn about her wild experience in the desert, when she briefly fell in with a romantic bandit (Chang Chen). Inevitably, this bandit will return.
Ang Lee has said that this film is a tribute to the martial arts movies he grew up watching in Taiwan, and he and his usual screenwriting partner James Schamus stick to those traditions (right down to the inclusion of a sappy song over the end titles). It’s also a western, in Chinese garb. The real soul of the film resides with Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, two great stars of the Hong Kong cinema who bring great reserves of mystery and stillness to their roles. And, of course, their athletic skills.
There has been much talk of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon picking up a best picture Oscar nomination, and debate over whether the movie will catch on because it has subtitles. If there is any justice, it should be a hit across the boards, for this is the rare movie that should drive fans of The Matrix and Sense and Sensibility to equal peaks of pleasure.
2020: Crouching Tiger did score that Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, as well as nine others. It won for Best Foreign-Language Film, Cinematography, Art Direction–Set Decoration, and Original Score. Additional categories in which it was nominated: Direction, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Published or Produced, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Original Song.