Friday, January 11, 2013

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Based on the wuxia novel Crane Iron Pentalogy by Wang Dulu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the story about a swordsman trying to stop a young thief from stealing a legendary sword as he and another warrior try to stop the thief and her master. Directed by Ang Lee and screenplay by James Schamus, Wang Hui-Ling, and Tsai Kuo-Jung, the film is a stylized martial arts drama set in ancient times as it revolves around themes of honor as well as identity. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei-pei, Sihung Lung, and Zhang Ziyi. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a majestic yet visually-gorgeous film from Ang Lee.

Returning from Wudan after a period of meditation, legendary swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) meets with his longtime friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) as he plans to give up life as a warrior and give the legendary Green Destiny sword to their friend Sir Te (Sihung Lung). Shu Lien accompanies Mu Bai to Peking where she gives Sir Te the sword while encountering the daughter of the town’s governor named Jen (Zhang Ziyi) who is set to marry a bureaucrat in an arranged marriage. Later that night, a mysterious young woman had stolen the Green Destiny sword as Shu Lien, Sir Te’s guard Bo (Xian Gao), and many others try to retrieve it. Mu Bai and Shu Lien believe that the infamous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) might’ve been involved as a police inspector named Tsai (De Ming Wang) and his daughter May (Li Li) are after Fox over the death of Tsai’s wife years ago.

Fox also killed Mu Bai’s master years ago as Mu Bai, Bo, Tsai, and May decides to confront the mysterious Jade Fox until her mysterious masked apprentice appears with the Green Destiny causing problems as Mu Bai knows who is the thief. Fox meanwhile, confronts her apprentice over the fact that she was able to fight against Mu Bai very well. Later that night, Jen receives a visit from her lover in a desert bandit named Lo (Chang Chen) who learns about Jen’s upcoming nuptials as he wants to take her away back to the desert where they first met. Jen refuses only for Lo to interrupt the wedding procession until he’s captured by Mu Bai and Shu Lien. With the recently-returned Green Destiny sword stolen again, Mu Bai and Shu Lien return to Shu Lien’s home where some revelations occur about the thief as Mu Bai tries to offer her something which then leads to a final confrontation with Jade Fox.

While the film is a martial-arts adventure film that revolves around a legendary sword, it’s a film that explores the confines of duty and what is expected from people as well as breaking out of this repression. In this multi-narrative story, there’s two warriors who definitely have feelings for each other but could never express it due to the fact they lost someone they cared for and felt that it would insult that person’s memory. There’s also this story about the daughter of a governor who is set to be married only to be in love with a desert bandit she had encountered some time ago. It definitely leads to all sorts of complications when a sword is stolen as there’s those who are involved trying to retrieve this famed sword.

The film’s screenplay isn’t just complex in its narrative but also in the way the characters are presented. Li Mu Bai is a man who has endured enough training and fighting who feels like there is nowhere to go until he encounters this young thief whom he believes has the potential to be something greater and undo whatever mistakes that had been made by his masters years ago. Mu Bai’s friend Yu Shu Lien is a woman who knows what she should do as a woman but feels repressed by the fact that she and Mu Bai have feelings for each other but is still saddened by the death of her lover who was also Mu Bai’s best friend. Then there’s Jen Yu, a governor’s daughter who is feels stilted by her duty as she wants to do the things Shu Lien does while there’s something about her that becomes intriguing.

Notably as the screenplay features a flashback narrative about how Jen meets this desert bandit Lo where they fall in love as Lo becomes the escape that Jen craves for only for other things to complicate matters. The character of Jade Fox isn’t just this venomous antagonist who wants to kill Mu Bai over the fact that she never got the chance to grow as a warrior. She becomes upset that her apprentice has started to surpass her in skill as she starts to become envious and eventually corruptive. Eventually, a showdown occurs where Mu Bai wants to become the one person who can provide Fox’s apprentice something more.

Ang Lee’s direction is definitely stylish not just in terms of the presentation of the martial arts scene but also in the film’s dramatic moments. Shot on location in the mountains and deserts of China as well as locations around Beijing, it’s a film set in a period where there isn’t a lot of conflict happening and times are definitely changing in some ways. Lee’s approach to framing and not employing lots of close-ups allows the film to present the characters in the environment they’re in whether it’s the lushness of the forests or in the homes of government officials. Lee always find a way to put the actors in a frame where it isn’t show-dressing but rather express what is happening as there’s a lot of intrigue that occurs.

For the fight scenes, Lee employs the services of choreographer Yuen Wo Ping for a very stylized approach to martial arts where it involves lots of flying and moves where it is about the intensity of the fight as well as what is at stakes. Lee also employs bits of humor such as an elaborate scene at a restaurant where a bunch of men try to gang up on someone only for everything to wrong. Lee also knows when to give the audience a break from the fighting for a moment of serenity where it allows the characters to find themselves or to figure out what to do next. Overall, Lee creates an exquisite yet spellbinding film about love and identity.

Cinematographer Peter Pau does brilliant work with the film‘s photography from the lushness of the forests to the vast look of the scenes in the deserts while the nighttime interior and exterior scenes play to the element of style as well as a mood that was needed for those scenes. Editor Tim Squyres does amazing work with the editing by employing lots of rhythmic cuts for some of the film‘s fight scenes that were very stylized along with more methodical cuts in the dramatic moments. Production/costume designer Timmy Yip does fantastic work with the set pieces in the look of the restaurant with all of its chaos as well as the stylish clothes that Jen wears.

Visual effects supervisor Rob Hodgson does terrific work with the visual effects for some of the scenes of flying as well as other stylistic moments to play up that sense of fantasy. Sound editor Eugene Gearty does wonderful work with the sound to create an intimacy in the quieter scenes while splicing lots of different sound effects for the fight scenes. The film’s music by Tan Dun is mesmerizing for its mixture of somber string pieces with cellos provided by Yo-Yo Ma as well as bombastic, percussion-based music for the film‘s fight scenes.

The film’s ensemble cast is excellent as it features some memorable small roles from Li Fazeng and Hai Yan as Jen’s parents, Xian Gao as the guard Bo, Li Li as Inspector Tsai’s daughter May, and De Ming Wang as Inspector Tsai. Sihung Lung is wonderful as Sir Te who knows about the feelings between Mu Bai and Shu Lien while dealing with the theft of the Green Destiny. Cheng Pei-pei is great as the venomous Jade Fox who deals with her enemies as well as the fact that her apprentice is starting to surpass her in every way. Chang Chen is superb as the bandit Lo who is in love with Jen while trying to stop her from getting married.

Zhang Ziyi is amazing as Jen as a young woman dealing with the role she is forced to play as well as desire to rebel in order to find happiness as a young woman. Michelle Yeoh is brilliant as Yu Shu Lien who is determined to retrieve the Green Destiny sword while dealing with her own feelings for Mu Bai. Finally, there’s Chow Yun-Fat in a marvelous performance as Lu Mu Bai as a man who feels lost in his role as he deals with loss and uncertainty while trying to retrieve the Green Destiny sword and deal with his feelings for Shu Lien.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an outstanding film from Ang Lee that features incredible performances from Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Chang Chen, and Zhang Ziyi. The film is definitely among one of the great films of the martial arts genre as well as a unique take on the world of fantasy. It is also one of Lee’s best films for exploring big themes on identity and repression as it serves as one of his most definitive works. In the end, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a phenomenal film from Ang Lee.

Ang Lee Films: Pushing Hands - The Wedding Banquet - Eat Drink Man Woman - Sense & Sensibility (1995 film) - The Ice Storm - Ride with the Devil - The Hire: Chosen - Hulk - Brokeback Mountain - Lust, Caution - Taking Woodstock - Life of Pi - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - The Auteurs #19: Ang Lee

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