For slightly more than a decade, Chinese martial-arts films have -- directly and indirectly -- gained a growing audience in America. Now the genre may find its greatest breakthrough coming from an unlikely source -- director Ang Lee, best known for such comedy-dramas of social manners as Sense and Sensibility, The Wedding Banquet and The Ice Storm. In his newest film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee modifies his usual tony approach in an attempt -- largely successful -- to re-create the genre's virtues for a new audience.
Lee starts with several huge advantages. Working with a Hollywood company -- Sony Pictures may be Japanese-owned, but it's still a Hollywood studio -- he has the sort of budget that earlier directors in the field could only dream of. (Actually, by current Hollywood standards, the budget, a reported $17 million, is a pittance.) He has two of the four most recognizable Asian stars in America -- Chow Yun Fat (Anna and the King, The Enforcer) and Michelle Yeoh (Supercop, Tomorrow Never Dies). (To answer the inevitable follow-up question, the other two are Jackie Chan and Jet Li.) His films' Academy Award nominations and his international reputation have given him the clout to attract the cream of Asian talent behind the camera as well.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon starts out deceptively quietly: It is some time in China's distant past. Li Mu Bai (Chow), one of the country's most famous warriors, has decided to retire from the world of martial arts, literally hanging up his sword, Green Destiny. He visits an old friend, woman warrior Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), to ask her to take the mystically powerful Green Destiny to Beijing to be remanded for safekeeping to Sir Te (Lung Sihung). In the course of this conversation, we realize that Shu Lien and Mu Bai are in love with each other but have fought their attraction for decades for complicated reasons of honor that are explained only way later.
While handing the sword over to Sir Te, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the beautiful and very young daughter of a local nabob. The two immediately bond: Jen, smart and tough, clearly reminds Shu Lien of her younger self.
It is in the handling of this material that it becomes apparent that Ang Lee is still Ang Lee, regardless of what genre he is working in. From opening logo to the end of this scene is a full 16 minutes of exposition -- essentially a sequence of conversations outlining the characters and, crucially, the behavioral and ethical codes of their world. Sixteen minutes may not seem very long to those used to art-house films -- which is how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is being marketed. But for those versed in Chinese action cinema -- particularly the Hong Kong variety that has dominated the field for 20 years -- it's an eternity. No Hong Kong director -- except perhaps the anomalous art-house filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express) -- would dare lead off with that much exposition and character development; an HK director would normally contrive an opening action scene before settling in for the slower stuff, even if that scene had no real internal justification.
Audience expectation becomes an important factor here: As an example, when Brian De Palma was making his early film Sisters, he instructed his composer, longtime Hitchcock associate Bernard Herrmann, not to write suspense music for a certain sequence. When Herrmann disagreed, De Palma said, "But Hitchcock wouldn't use music here." "That's right," Herrmann replied (in essence), "because he's Hitchcock, and the audience knows that." The audience that is naturally attracted to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- the audience that knows Ang Lee's other work -- will not be bothered or surprised at all by the pacing; they have no expectation of how martial-arts films are supposed to be paced according to the rules of the genre.
For everyone else, even if one questions Lee's decision, it has a marvelous payoff. After the meeting between Shu Lien and Jen, we get the first action sequence: a nocturnal fight between Shu Lien and a masked thief (who is quite obviously Jen in disguise), in which the latter steals Green Destiny. After the slow opening, this magnificent fight scene has the impact of a thunderbolt. Staged by master action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping -- best known here for his action work on The Matrix, though he's also fully directed some of Hong Kong's most entertaining films -- the fight is breathtaking, culminating in a chase that 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 audiences may titter at first before accepting it as part of the movie's fantastic universe.
There are a half-dozen more such sequences spaced judiciously throughout the entire film. And although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has other virtues, its greatest power lies in its action. Far more than Lee's earlier work, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon glories in motion. In that, its aesthetic -- like most martial-arts movies -- has at least as much in common with musicals as with Hollywood notions of action filmmaking. It depends less on dialogue and strict forms of narrative continuity than on ideas of rhythm. For that sort of beauty in Hollywood, one traditionally had to look to All That Jazz, West Side Story, the Astaire-Rogers musicals and the tap-dance extravaganzas of Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather. In short, the pleasures to be found here are likely to come as a delightful surprise to those who would normally never even consider going to a "chop-socky" film -- an unfairly derogatory term for the genre in which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon must be included.
The ways in which Lee's film deviates from standard Chinese action-film practice may be a simple case of his particular concerns and personality, but it also may have to do with the models he's operating from. He has gone on record about how it was the martial-arts films of his Taiwanese childhood that made him fall in love with cinema, and those films are from an earlier era. In particular, he is emulating King Hu, the first Chinese director to achieve critical recognition in the rest of the world; his influence can be seen throughout Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Three particular elements of Hu's work are strongly reflected in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He incorporated the dance and acrobatic moves of Chinese opera (as well as elements of Sergio Leone's spaghetti-Western style) into a previously stiff style. He recognized that the camera could dance as well, combining traditionally stylized staging with sweeping camera movement and ingenious cutting. And he gave women equal or superior standing in the world of action. With the exception of anomalies like The Long Kiss Goodnight, Hollywood, 30 years later, has yet to catch up with Hu on the issue of women.
It is ironic that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- which, in a poor field of competitors, is shaping up as one of the year's best films -- may well be least enthusiastically received among diehard fans of its genre. What appears striking and new to most audiences is likely to be less riveting to those who have loved this form of cinema for years ... and who may feel peevish that it's taken a relative interloper from the art houses to bring its glories to broader attention. "We've been trying to turn you on to this stuff for years!" they might justifiably cry. "And you wouldn't listen! And now you're giving all the credit to Ang Lee, who is largely recycling standard elements of the genre! What about Ronny Yu's 1992 masterpiece The Bride with White Hair, of which Crouching Tiger is a decent facsimile?"
In truth, if longtime fans try to look objectively at Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they will see a first-rank entry in the field, worthy of comparison to its forebears. And they should welcome anything that brings attention to their beloved genre. Meanwhile, the rest of you should go see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And, assuming you like what you see, you should go out and rent The Bride with White Hair already.