Of youth and mastery: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The poet Frank Bidart once wrote, “As you grip the things that were young / when you were young, they crumble in your hand.” I first watched Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” when I was ten years old; I remember feeling the drumbeat echo in my pulse during the fight scenes. I left the movie theater awed, speechless; it is one of the few movies I watched multiple times, and each time, it seemed there was something new in the movie that I had not noticed before. Yet, when Orion and I sat down to work on our “Returning” series this weekend, I found myself disappointed.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was released in 2000, and that year was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It tells the tale of a young, bored, aristocrat girl named Jen (Zhang Ziyi); she is a martial arts prodigy, but is unguided in her education. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is a master of Wudan, but struggles with his feelings for Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). These three form a constantly shifting triangle of amity and animosity, the dynamics of which provide the foreground for a beautifully shot and masterfully rendered tour de force.
It’s true that the politics in this movie are superb – each character has his or her own goals, and there are so many dynamic relationships throughout the story. Yet, I couldn’t help but be frustrated by the heavy-handed acting, upset because the movie was not the piece I remembered it to be. Why does this happen, and why to the movies that we love the most? Have I grown cynical in my old age, or is this just the destiny of a return?
Overall – 4.5/5; (partially for old times’ sakes), a beautiful musical score, cinematography, and a gripping story.
I must say, given the reputation of this movie I was somewhat disappointed by the taste it left in my mouth, though perhaps that was the result of a disappointing ending. After hearing Apple gush over this movie’s romance and fight scenes, I was expecting something quite different from what I received. Watching the movie, I felt neither awe nor sadness, only an interest in the reasons for why things were done the way they were done.
As Apple mentioned, this movie circles around three martial artists, each with a unique struggle. Jen struggles with her past and her future, Li Mu Bai struggles to express his feelings, Shu Lien struggles to repress her feelings. These struggles drive the movie in an interesting way: the plot follows logically from the interaction of the three martial artists, so that when fights happen, they happen not as mere devices to entertain the audience but rather as extensions of the struggle within each character.
The wirework, though excellent, has visibly aged, as have the special effects. But one doesn’t watch this kind of movie for that kind of reason. I was interested in the relationships between the characters, the way individual actions rippled across the tapestry of the whole, and Ang Lee manages to capture the causality of life quite beautifully.
This movie works best when the characters’ feelings burst to the surface, when they confront each other in battle, when the pure and beautiful intensity of the fight shines through and obscures the flaws of the movie as a whole. When the drums are beating, when the steel flashes together, you forget for a moment the reasons and watch the dance, hoping that it will never end.