Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirteen

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#13 — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
It is perhaps a marker of the diminished expectations of any film that is dominated and driven by action sequences that Ang Lee’s involvement in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon initially seemed perplexing. Lee had made his mark with films that were about conversations rather than fisticuffs, films that were deeply invested in character. Even the battle sequences and other violent skirmishes in the film he’d made immediately prior, the flawed but underrated Civil War drama Ride with the Devil, were entirely secondary to small focused scenes that examined how the characters interacted with one another. This martial arts epic seemed drastically removed from the sort of film that previously attracted his interest and drew out his knowing depictions of humanity. And then Lee, who’d already demonstrated an admirable range, proved that doubting him wasn’t a sound instinct. Like the lithe warriors he tracked across the screen, it seemed he could do anything.

It’s to his great credit that he accomplished this by resolutely sticking with his well-established greatest strength as a filmmaker. Specifically, he focused on the characters. There’s much to admire in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on a purely technical level. The crystalline elegance of Peter Pau’s cinematography, the perfectly calibrated editing of Tim Squyres, the propulsive score by Tan Dun, and unquestionably the roundly celebrated action choreography by Wo Ping Yuen all contribute mightily to the film’s impact. Yet, consistently wondrous as all these elements are, there are plenty of lesser films out there with individual components that are worthy of equal praise. It is Lee’s inspiration that draws them together to a cohesive, compelling whole, and the unifying thread is the attention paid to the story, the script, and, perhaps most importantly, the people that populate the film. We may marvel at their feat of athleticism, but that wouldn’t matter much if they weren’t just as fascinating when sitting somberly around a table contemplating the heartaches of the past.

Based on a novel by Wang Du Lu, and adapted for the screen by Hui-Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai and Lee’s regular collaborator James Schamus, the film is ultimately quite simple. Set in 18th century China, the film revolves around a fabled sword called Green Destiny, the warrior who gives it up in part as gesture of his retirement, and the fiery young woman who steals it away. From these threads a great cinematic tapestry is woven, getting at matters of nobility, integrity, how glory can be earned and stolen, and how duty can defer personal desire. All these different tugs and shoves of human emotion are conveying beautifully by the cast assembled by Lee. Chow Yun-Fat quietly conveys the ways in which a lifetime lived in honor and service can leave a man considering all he has given up just as assuredly as he can look back with pride at his accomplishments. Similarly, Michelle Yeoh invests the woman who has been his longtime friend and ally, a formidable fighter in her own right, with a regal self-assurance that is as appealing as it is formidable. Then there’s Zhang Ziyi, a thrilling whirldwind as the young woman whose predetermined place in the world doesn’t match well with her fervent desire for boundless adventure.

These roles are so well-developed and then acted with appropriate skill, that the action sequences become a expression of character. Watching Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi face off in hand-to-hand combat typified by lightning-fast movement, exquisite grace, and agility that pays the laws of gravity no mind is incredibly exciting, but it also draws us in further to them, gives us a greater understanding of the people they’re playing. Furthermore, Lee strives to find the beauty in these sequences, as well, using lovely wire-work to send his combatants up the the shifting luxury of the treetops or skipping gently across moonlit roofs. There’s visual splendor there, but there’s also a sense of the way these individuals connect to the world around them. It is breathtaking, but avoids the pitfall of a wavering focus. The film doesn’t stop for the action sequences. Instead, it demands that the action sequences contribute to everything else the film is trying to convey. These moments get the blood pumping, but they also stir the soul.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is assembled with evident care. It is inspirational and surprisingly moving, an unrelenting feast for the eyes and a film that is unafraid to scratch at deeper ideas, to get at the way we are shaped by the expectations we build for ourselves. The athletic feats it puts on display may flirt with the delightfully impossible, but it is the most grounded elements, the fully identifiable glimpses of love, envy, bravery and regret, that truly send it soaring.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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