Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (PG-13)

The attempt of the movie was to craft the most astonishing martial arts movie. Arguably, it was successful at its goal. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a piece that feels goofy, emotional, weightless, and melancholy all at the same time. Leave it to master director Ang Lee to pull this one off, because he, just like the characters in his movie, seems to have no limits.
Set in China in times when warriors would roam the land and fight for glory, the movie destroys the romantic notions of the samurai fighter (as best exemplified in films like Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai") with its opening scene. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is visiting an old friend/lover, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) after a long time in training. He confesses to her that he did not finish his training, but instead meditated for many, many days. Eventually he came to a place that he had never heard described—Shu Lien suggests that he became enlightened; but he quickly rejects the idea because the place he came to was filled with a vacuousness. There was nothing there. This made such an impression on him that he decided to abandon his training and return home—his revelation, paired with the murder of his master by a culprit known only as Jade Fox make him give up his sword and ponder his future.
This sword, the Green Destiny, is a work of art. Its craftsmanship is beyond compare, being made by a technique that is long since forgotten. Li Mu Bai asks Shu Lien to take the sword and give it to Sir Te, a man that he trusts and admires. The abandonment of his sword makes Shu Lien very uneasy. It could be the beginning to the romance that both of them want, or it could be the start of something much darker. Still, she obeys his wishes and brings the Green Destiny to Sir Te, where she meets the sweet and angel-faced Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), a girl about to be married. Jen is ready for adventure, she adores the old warrior tales and shows no disappointment when Shu Lien tells her that those stories are only for show, being a warrior is not as fun as all that.
The problem arrises when the Green Destiny is stolen from Sir Te in the dead of the night by a swift burglar. Li Mu Bai arrives at Sir Te's and learns of the sword's disappearance; but he is more interested in a shot at revenge for the death of his master.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is best remembered for its martial arts sequences. The percussive score and the dizzying cinematography, both of which won Oscars, burn themselves onto the mind of the viewer. But the first time I saw the movie, I was more struck by the story of three individuals and the poetic ending of the movie...and yes, the martial arts.
Ang Lee brought in choreographer Woo-ping Yuen and the two decided on a more aerial battle. The actors would be hoisted up on strings and then the grace and deftness of their art could be given its full respect. That accompanied with the deadly action and precise fighting gives us the most spectacular sequences in the movies.
Skimming across water or floating above the rooftops, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" still looks flawless.
But there's much more to the movie that just its action. There are frustratingly complex characters whose actions can never quite be predicted and this leaves us wondering what will happen after the fight and not during it, which is a rare achievement for a film so acclaimed for its stunts.
Ang Lee has a sufficient amount of heartache in the picture, which reminds us that previous to this movie he made "The Ice Storm". This emotion is also the compelling part of the film, it's what keeps us watching.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" takes a lot of its cues from Kurosawa, but without the incessant need to have hyperbolic characters. The film makes super-humans out of men; but it also reminds us of their mortality, their love, and yes, their humanity. For all its actions, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" remains a mournful song of individuals, and what a breathtaking one it is at that!

Score: ★★★½

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