NYFF REVIEW: A Populist "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" Dazzles
by Ray Pride
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Closing the NYFF tonight, Ray Pride reviewed “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” during the Toronto Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in December]
“‘Sense and Sensibility‘ with martial arts'” is the all-too-cute summary of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that co-writer, co-executive producer James Schamus has been dispensing, yet it’s so much better than that. Let’s drop the marketing shorthand and grab the popcorn.
“Crouching Tiger” fits in with the six other diverse movies that director Ang Lee has made, as a story of several characters whose inability to express their innermost desires leads them to conflict with the society in which they live. (Why this theme, Lee was asked after Monday’s early-morning public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Growing up Chinese?” he questioned back, with a big smile.) Yet the latest work seems less social commentary or comedy of manners than his other work, and it differs from martial arts movies in its balance of drama, romance and action.
But that is not to say it is anything less than sensational. The last several scenes wash over an audience and you lap them up gratefully. Conflicts come to their logical end, characters come to deserved and undeserved ends. One of the most lyrical scenes in Lee’s movies occurs near the end, where a master who seeks a pupil finds a battle in an elegant setting that it is dream-like, impracticable in this life, and foreshadowed in the fields of green that ripple under the gorgeous characters of the main title of the film.
There is unrequited love and longing fulfilled throughout this epic of ancient China. Lee has said that the film “is a kind of dream of China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan.” Taking up the popular genre of the Hong Kong martial arts film, Lee and his collaborators invest it with the notion that there are secret, higher levels of Taoist thought that can make you a better person, but first, a better fighter.
Chow Yun Fat is Li Mu Bai, the greatest martial arts master of his time. He has a history with Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), and they meet once more when he returns from a monastery, determined to give up fighting and pursue a clearer path in life. Knowing she is going to Beijing, he asks her to take his fighting sword, the Green Destiny, to Sir Te (Lung Sihung), a leader who was a friend of Shu Lien’s father. In Sir Te’s compound, Shu Lien meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi, whose calm and youthful beauty will translate her name to many as “I-yi-yi!”) an aristocratic girl who asks questions about the Wudan way of fighting that both Li and Shu Lien are practiced in. She has her secrets, and the unfolding of her talents is the center of the movie. When she finds the Way, the movie finds its way.
There is an otherworldly calm throughout, yet it is the most engaging of movies. Lee’s imagery (shot by Peter Pau) is helped immeasurably by Tan Dun‘s score, which on one viewing, seems a consistent undercurrent, with rumbles at the edges of the consciousness, lovely, understated percussion during battle sequences and aching yet not unduly melodramatic cello solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma. It is less heartbeat than undercurrent. There is action throughout, yet the camerawork does not turn antic, does not become flurried or fussy. The approach seems: Here are magic things; watch as they unfold in front of you. Yuen Wo-Ping, whose wire work for flying battles has enlivened the work of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, as well as “The Matrix,” does miraculous work here. Anyone who remembers being a child and dreaming of flying, and having those dreams recur to this day, will be captivated.
How best to describe Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? It is a musical comedy.. Instead of several moments of dynamic dancing or heartfelt, expository lip-syncing, the characters instead pick up swords or machetes, pirouette in the air, fly across rooftops, tumble and counter-tumble in battle with those who might stunt their learning; dip their toes like pebbles skimming across placid ponds on their way further into this impossible past. These scenes dazzle in their own quiet way, with even a barroom brawl turned into an abstraction of aggression and masochistic determination.
This is great populist filmmaking, filled with grandeur and straightforward, almost modest craft. Ang Lee continues to dazzle the eye while engaging the mind. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will, one hopes, be more than a critic’s darling. This Christmas, it could be America’s sweetheart of a movie.
Ray Pride is a contributing editor to Filmmaker and longtime film editor for Chicago’s Newcity. He writes about movies for Brittanica.com, TNT’s Roughcut.com and the BBC World Service, among others.