Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took America by storm in 2000, earning ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and winning four. Although it utilized elements that were common in Chinese action cinema, domestic audiences largely hadn’t seen anything like it. Director Ang Lee put his own spin on those elements anyway, making the film fresh for aficionados of that country’s cinematic output, too. Thanks to a rousing reception at a Telluride Film Festival screening to celebrate Sony Pictures Classics’ 30th anniversary – and star Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar nomination for Everything Everywhere All at Once - this modern classic is returning to theater screens. I saw it today for the first time in more than two decades. Unsurprisingly, it completely holds up.
Chow Yun-Fat stars as Li Mu Bai, a famous warrior who has grown tired of bloodshed. As a gesture of his newfound combat weariness, he turns over his beloved sword, Green Destiny, to a local governor. He does this knowing that he has failed to avenge the murder of his master by a mysterious renegade known as Jade Fox. Li Mu Bai crosses paths with the governor's daughter, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who is about to become the bride in an arranged marriage she wants no part of. Jen is a young woman with several secrets, and when Green Destiny is stolen, she becomes the prime suspect. Assisting Li Mu Bai in his attempts to recover the sword and finally defeat Jade Fox is Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), an old friend he has always loved. Yu Shu also has the feeling, but neither of them has ever acknowledged it.
The story eventually splinters off into an extended flashback sequence, wherein we learn of Jen’s romance with Lo (Chang Chen), a bandit she unexpectedly connected with after he stole from her. The reason why she has wedding nerves becomes much clearer. Moving back to the main plot, Yu Shu acts as a confidante to the younger woman, as well as a mediator, trying to facilitate the return of Green Destiny without causing any political ripples. And, of course, Li Mu Bai gets his final encounter with Jade Fox. At the end, all the plot threads pull together for a finale that is simultaneously exciting and touching.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon undeniably benefits from the pairing of Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh. Both are skilled martial artists who bring authenticity to the action scenes and dramatic heft to the unspoken love between their characters. The audience can feel their yearning for one another. That bond pays off at the end, with Yun-Fat and Yeoh earning the lump-in-your-throat response their final scene together gets.
The most dazzling part of the movie, of course, is the way the action is incorporated into the story. Many martial arts movies strain themselves trying to find excuses for the fighting. Not this one. Every single fight in the picture is there for a reason, and each one has some kind of necessary payoff. Ang Lee’s innovative staging of them is never less than captivating. People are able to defy gravity. They run up walls, bound across rooftops, and fly though the air. The best scene is a sword fight that takes place in the tall treetops of a large forest. Li Mu Bai and Jen hide strategically in the branches, only to spring forward and duel as the trees sway beneath their feet. It's one of the most magnificent and wondrous action sequences ever committed to film.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon influenced myriad other martial arts epics. Even if it isn’t as revelatory now as it was 23 years ago, the movie still maintains its ability to thrill and to evoke an emotional response. Balancing a strong human story with fantastical action guarantees that this is a work of real substance, one that will still be enthralling viewers another 23 years down the road.
out of four
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is rated PG-13 for martial arts violence and some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours.