Emotion in Motion

With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee reinvents the martial arts movie for the art-house crowd

The ways in which Lee's film deviates from standard Chinese action film practice may be a simple case of his particular concerns and personality, but they may also have to do with the models from which he's operating. He has gone on record about how the martial arts films of his Taiwanese childhood made him fall in love with cinema, and those films are from an earlier era. In particular he is emulating King Hu, the first Chinese director to achieve critical recognition in the rest of the world; his influence can be seen throughout Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Hu, it must be added, died in 1997 in Pasadena, California, where he had lived for several years while attempting unsuccessfully to get U.S. funding for some long-cherished projects.)

Three particular elements of Hu's work are strongly reflected in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The elder director incorporated the dance and acrobatic moves of Chinese opera (as well as elements of Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns) into a previously stiff style. He also recognized that the camera could dance as well as the actors, combining traditionally stylized staging with sweeping camera movement and ingenious cutting. And he gave women equal or superior standing in the world of action. (As a sign of blatant homage to Hu, Lee uses actress Cheng Pei Pei -- who starred in Hu's breakthrough 1965 hit Come Drink with Me -- in a major part in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) With the exception of anomalies such as The Long Kiss Goodnight, Hollywood, 30 years later, has yet to catch up with Hu on the issue of women.

It is ironic that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- which, in a poor field of competitors, is shaping up as one of the best films to be released in 2000 -- may be least enthusiastically received among die-hard fans of its genre. What appears striking and new to most audiences is likely to be less riveting to those who have loved this form of cinema for years and who may feel peevish that it's taken a relative interloper from the art houses to bring its glories to broader attention. "We've been trying to turn you on to this stuff for years!" they might justifiably cry. "And you wouldn't listen! And now you're giving all the credit to Ang Lee, who is largely recycling standard elements of the genre! What about Ronny Yu's 1992 masterpiece The Bride with White Hair, of which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a decent facsimile?"

Chow Yun Fat teaches Western audiences the Hong Kong way to fly
Chow Yun Fat teaches Western audiences the Hong Kong way to fly

Details

Screenplay by James Schamus, Wang Hui Ling, and Tsai Kuo Jung; based on the novel by Wang Du Lu

In truth, if long-time fans try to look objectively at Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they will see a first-rank entry in the field, worthy of comparison to its forebears. And they should welcome anything that brings attention to their beloved genre. Meanwhile the rest of you should go see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And assuming you like what you see, you should go out and rent The Bride with White Hair already.

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