It’s hard to believe that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is 21 years old. Ang Lee’s masterpiece of martial arts swordplay, swooning romance and girl power seems just as fresh as it did when it wowed audiences worldwide at the turn of the millennium. If anything, its feminist themes are more relevant than ever; and its stunning action and soaring visuals still inspire awe. Its influence in opening up the West to Asian cinema has been profound.
In retrospect it was risky for the Taiwan-born Lee – previously known for family dramas like Eat Drink Man Woman and literary adaptations like Sense and Sensibility – to take a leap into the high-flying, action-packed world of wuxia in such a lavish East–West co-production. It may have seemed to devotees of martial arts films that Lee was a dilettante, attempting some kind of ill-considered crossover; admirers of his dramas may have been equally dubious about his foray into genre pictures.
But Crouching Tiger was a critical and box-office smash and an instant game-changer, with its fusion of action, fantasy and arthouse modes, and its many strong, complex female characters. The aching, barely spoken love between warriors Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) became a benchmark for tragic romance. The exquisite score, featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma, only added to the transcendence. Lee unabashedly wanted the best of both worlds – a character-driven blockbuster with heartrending drama and swords – and he succeeded like no one since.
Crouching Tiger tells a story of love, honour and revenge in 19th century Qing dynasty China. Mu Bai returns from a spiritual sabbatical to see his beloved, Shu Lien. The melancholy: Mu Bai wishes to retire from the warrior life and the material world, and he tells Shu Lien to give his fabled sword, the Green Destiny, to Sir Te (Sihung Lung), a Beijing nobleman who contracts her for security. But soon after Shu Lien passes the sword on, it is stolen by a daring thief with incredible fighting skills.
Shu Lien quickly deduces that the perpetrator is Yu Jen (Zhang Zi Yi), the young daughter of an aristocrat visiting the capital, who is resentful of her upcoming arranged marriage. Soon it is revealed that Jen’s governess – and secret martial arts mentor – is the Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), a renegade warrior with witchlike mystique who killed Mu Bai’s master years before. Both Shu Lien and Mu Bai believe that Jen can be won over from her dark influence and trained to become a great warrior, but her youthful rebellion keeps creating havoc – and a body count.
One of the things that makes Crouching Tiger so timeless is that the screenplay creates sympathy for every character. Jen may be selfish and reckless, but her defiance against the stifling fate of patriarchal bondage is perfectly rational; and the ease with which she dispatches every male warrior who attempts to teach her a lesson is electrifying. Even the Jade Fox is a tragic villain with feminist undertones: her criminal career is driven by her rage at being rejected for training on Wudan Mountain because she was a woman.
The tranquility of the delicate love between Mu Bai and Shu Lien – the film’s emotional core, despite how little time they get to spend together – is continually interrupted by all this turmoil. The implication is that no one will know peace and happiness as long as there is injustice in the world.
Lee boldly undercuts genre convention, setting aside action for long stretches of drama. The extended interlude formed by Jen’s flashback to her illicit romance with desert bandit Lo, the Dark Cloud (Chen Chang), is especially striking and unusual. With its overt tribute to Hollywood Westerns and entirely different visual palette and music, it’s like a film within a film. It’s also very effective in establishing the emotional stakes for Jen.
Yet when it comes time to break out the swords (and knives and machetes), Lee proves his mettle: Crouching Tiger’s action sequences are among the most thrilling ever filmed. Show-stoppers such as Shu Lien’s fierce one-on-one combat with Jen, or Jen (in gender-bending disguise) single-handedly taking on a small army in a multi-level restaurant, are genius in their blend of balletic action choreography (by Hong Kong veteran Yuen Woo-Ping) and artfully kinetic cinema. Lee’s emphasis on character and emotion makes the action even more impactful.
The unforgettable climactic scene in which Mu Bai and Jen duel in the upper reaches of a bamboo forest – their angelic white forms swooping to and fro amidst the shimmering green leaves – has a dreamlike quality rarely achieved in mainstream movies of any kind. Like the martial arts masters he depicts onscreen, Lee finds a perfect, graceful balance between thought and action, between the physical and the spiritual.
Catch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies, Tuesday 27 September. (The film will not be at SBS On Demand.)