About thirteen years ago, my college buddies and I went to see a movie. It was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yep.
It is the late 18th century. Master Wudan fighter Li Mu Bai has returned home early from training in the mountains. A sense of endless sorrow during meditation training has convinced him to give up his warrior life, even though he has yet to avenge his masterâ€™s murder at the hands of Jade Fox. He gives his centuries-old sword, Green Destiny, to his good friend and fellow warrior Yu Shu Lien and asks her to bring it with her on her trip to Beijing and give to an older friend named Sir Te. He promises to meet up with her after going to his masterâ€™s grave and apologizing for not getting revenge.
When Shu Lien gets to Sir Teâ€™s place, she meets Jen Yu, the barely 20-year-old daughter of visiting Manchu Governor Yu. Jen has heard about the exploits of warriors such Mu Bai and read all sorts of books about sword fighters. She envies them and wants to be like them, particularly since she is about to enter an arranged marriage and feels like these people who are twice her age have been roaming about free to do as they please. Shu Lien tries to tell her that the warriorâ€™s rules are also restrictive, but all Jen hears is that Shu Lien is not married.
That night, a masked thief sneaks into Sir Teâ€™s place and steals the sword. Several people chase after the thief, and Shu Lien gets into a fight with the thief. But the thief gets away with the sword. Evidence points to Governor Yu, but Sir Te believes that it is a setup to frame the Governor. It is unclear when certain characters learn the identity of the thief, but it is almost immediately obvious to the audience that it is Jen. Why does she steal it? Certainly a rich girl like her is not going to sell it. Did she take it for some evil mystical purpose? Nope. She was just frustrated and acting out. However, he little act of rebellious robbery threatens to bring Jade Fox out of hiding just as Mu Bai arrives in Beijing.
And then there are a couple of side-plots and supporting characters that take up quite a bit of time.
Loosely based on parts of the Crane Iron novels, this movie was an international production, with people from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the United States. Director Ang Lee was born and raised in Taiwan, but went to film school in New York City, so many of his films have a more Western bent. In making this movie, Ang Lee tapped into to a few aspects of Chinese film that had been making inroads in the West, but had yet to really reach the mainstream. There was, of course, the martial arts film, which had been underground for around a decade or so until Bruce Lee exploded on the scene. At that point, actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li were slowly becoming better known in the West, but it was Michelle Yeoh who gained much attention from her role as a Bond Girl three years earlier. There was also Chow Yun-fat, hero of many a John Woo action film and the King of Siam, doing his first martial arts movie. And then there was the other end of the Chinese film spectrum from the Martial Arts Film: the Melancholy Orientalist Arthouse Epic. Combining the Martial Arts with the Artsy Farts may not have sat well with the purists, but it was enough to get this $17 million movie $128 million from the United States and another $85 million from the rest of the world. That is a 12.5-fold profit; hardly a world record, but I am pretty sure that that is a wider margin than what Avatar got back.
And, really, that may be exactly what I liked about it. I was never particularly fond of martial arts movies, mostly because things either seemed too goofy or laughably over-intense, and the choppy momentum gets kind of grating after a while. Sure, I can enjoy sitting back and watching one (and there are a few that I will eventually include in this series), but I find most of them to be rather disposable and forgettable aside from maybe a few moments. And that includes the classics that I have seen. Seriously, I will watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over any Bruce Lee film any day. This movie, while softer than most martial arts films, had a flow to it and emphasized the beauty of the form over the fun or the fury. Perhaps I simply prefer the more highbrow form of Chinese film or consider it to be more memorable and permanent, having been exposed to more of that style of film through my parents. The wirework and choreography (by the guy behind The Matrix) may have struck some as ridiculous, reminded me of when I would dream that I could walk on air as if it were no big deal. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not without its humorous moments, cheesy moments, or even downright silly moments. Still, it tends to be overshadowed by the sense of quiet awe and gentle reverence even when it goes over the top. Chinese audiences may have raised their eyebrows at amount of hype that this got in the West, and may have snickered at some of the accents of the actors who were not all that comfortable speaking Standard Mainland Mandarin. At the same time, this type of soft and artsy Martial Arts genre became more prominent. Believe me, there are a lot of them and a lot of them are painfully mediocre.
Many martial arts film celebrate the loyalty, discipline, and honor of their fighters, which tempers the freedom that they may represent to the masses. This movie, though, treats these obligations as possible shackles as well, completely subverting any freedom that others think the fighters may have. And, like any good Orientalist films, there is much silent longing and women have it particularly bad. While Jen bristles under the orders to marry into a rich family to serve her fatherâ€™s ambitions, Shu Lien is destined to the single life. She had been married to a blood brother of Mu Bai, and cannot remarry even years after his death. And while she and Mu Bai have gotten closer during that time, they cannot broach the subject towards each other even if everyone knows how they feel. Societal repression; Ang Lee seems to love that stuff.
When Jen breaks both the rules of high society and the warriorâ€™s code of conduct, she tends to leave a trail of life-changing chaos. Behind her recklessness is a sense of fear. An extended (and rather sudden) flashback reveals that she had gotten a taste of that strange and uncertain freedom sometime in the past, and fears that this arranged marriage is going to be the end of it. She had been secretly practicing martial arts for about half her life, but had realized at some point that she had surpassed her master. Westerners might consider that cause for smug celebration, but Jen had been frightened of the implications ever since.
There have been reports that a sequel to the film is in the works. Given that the first film was loosely based on a series of novels, there is quite a bit of material that could turn up in the movie. I am not sure if I am particularly interested in seeing such a movie nearly fourteen years after the first one, but who knows? In any case, there is still the original. And it is quite a good one.
Next Time: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (South Korea: 2005, approx. 115 minutes).
Time After Next: 7 Khoon Maaf (India: 2011, approx. 150 minutes).