I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is an important movie to me for a couple reasons. One is personal, but the other is kinda about you guys. I had been writing reviews on my Geocities websight for a bit, but I didn’t really think anybody gave a shit, so I had kind of given it up for a few months when I ran into an old friend who mentioned he liked what I wrote about CROUCHING TIGER and wondered when I was gonna write more reviews. So I did, and then I continued for like 17 years, and here we are. Thank you, Jacob M., for saying that to me that day.

I love CROUCHING TIGER. I wasn’t sure how well it would hold up after all these years. It was such an exciting movie of its time, but it’s been imitated, techniques have evolved, new things have been achieved in martial arts, we’ve changed. And though I still like HULK, the other Ang Lee film I was obsessed with in the early 2000s, it doesn’t quite knock my socks all the way off anymore. Just part way off.

CROUCHING TIGER, I’m happy to discover, still does. And it knocks them off in a deeper, more mature way than it used to. My socks were very impressed.

I remember because Lee had done SENSE AND SENSIBILITY lots of people said this was like kung fu Jane Austen, and back then I kinda sided with the smarty pantses who said well, actually this is an old genre in Chinese cinema. But now more than ever I see that both are correct. This is a unique version of the period wuxia melodrama, leaning more on the quiet, reserved dialogue scenes, but with fights beautiful and thrilling enough to sustain them, to keep the engine idling in case it needs to take off all the sudden. As I mentioned many times in my dumb 2000 take on the movie, Yuen Woo-Ping’s still amazing fights feel more like dance numbers than attempts to murder each other. I still remember the feeling of seeing it the first time and the crowd erupting into applause at the end of that first one that takes place on the roof at night.

I thought I loved it then, but 17 years later I’m more personally attuned to the story of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat, THE KILLER), who missed out on a normal family life while he trained on Wudan Mountain, and even then didn’t achieve to the level he’d hoped, leaving the meditation training after it brought him to a dark place instead of enlightenment. Took a wrong turn somewhere.

He doesn’t tell Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, ROYAL WARRIORS) or the audience what it was he saw in that “place of deep silence,” the “something pulling [him] back,” the “something [he] can’t let go of.” But we know from the look on his face – and I think she does too, from the look on her face – that it has to do with her, the woman he always loved. Maybe he regrets choosing training over her, or maybe there was no choice, because she was engaged to his now-deceased friend. Either way, in the deepest recesses of his mind he knows he fuckin blew it. And the best he can do now is swear off violence and hang up his sword. (Not literally. He keeps his sword in a case and gives it to Sir Te [Sihung Lung, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN].)

That was one powerful thing I remembered: that potent tension of longing, these two great characters who are incapable of declaring their love to each other. Li Mu Bai sitting politely having tea, giving away his entire life’s purpose in the form of the Green Destiny Sword, trying to act casual, testing the feasibility of divulging his most intimate thoughts through implication during small talk.

There’s a part later where he comes to her and she thinks it’s because of the sword being stolen, but then she realizes he didn’t know it was stolen until he got there, so she asks why he came and he doesn’t know what to say… Wow.

Lee famously revisited doomed, repressed, forbidden love in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I never realized how much the two movies had in common. And I guess HULK has it too. I wonder who or what broke Lee’s heart?

So, into the lives of these two who may wish they’d chosen different paths comes this young woman Jen (Zhang Ziyi, THE GRANDMASTER, RUSH HOUR 2) who is just about to set out on a path chosen for her – a marriage. Each having fought her (while she was in disguise) they recognize her great potential as a swordswoman and martial artist. They see her hidden restlessness, sneaking out at night, stealing the Green Destiny (not exactly a stealing-the-rival-team’s-mascot level small town shenanigan in my opinion) and running with wicked Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei, COME DRINK WITH ME).

I always love when movies have martial arts masters reading each other’s styles. Here Li Mu Bai reads Jen’s moves like metadata. He observes that her style has elements that Jade Fox’s does not, which tells him at least three things:

1) She has transcended her mentor, so she’s a great warrior
2) She’s not a toady beholden to Jade Fox
3) He has something to offer her: a fuller understanding of the Wudan style.

Shu Lien refers to herself as a sister and a friend to Jen, but I almost want to say that she and Li Mu Bai act like surrogate parents to her. They might see her as the daughter they might’ve had if they’d been together. But that’s not quite right. Parents probly wouldn’t help cover for her theft and hope that she’ll return the sword, so maybe they’re more like a cool aunt and uncle. But I definitely think Li Mu Bai sees Jen as a potential heir in a way. Someone to teach. He and Jade Fox fight over her as a student/heir.

But I don’t think Jen likes all this attention from the grown ups. She sees all this from a young, rebellious perspective. She’s a girl who doesn’t put up with much shit – after being kidnapped in the desert, she keeps beating up her abductor even though he’s non-threatening to her – and only on the surface does she accept her privileged aristocratic life.

She hasn’t learned honor yet. When she tells Li Mu Bai that she’ll be his student if he can take the sword from her in three moves, and he takes it in one move, she immediately breaks her promise. But this bratty behavior is also kind of charming in what might be my favorite fight, the battle in the inn with a group of masters who she taunts and humiliates. It has just the right comical tone so that we can appreciate her joy in letting loose in public and laugh at her opponents looks of shock as she insults them. They just can’t believe this is happening.

To her, fighting is a way to escape this life that has been forced on her. While in the guise of a normal rich girl she says something revealing to Shu Lien: “It must be exciting to be a fighter. To be totally free.” Because that total freedom is what’s important to her, she doesn’t want Li Mu Bai deciding what her life is about anymore than her parents or Jade Fox, and he figures that out. He knows she wants to train at Wudan, and also that she wants to be with the desert tiger dude Dark Cloud (Chang Chen, RED CLIFF). They don’t want her to end up their age having regrets, so they do what they can to make her dreams come true.

Li Mu Bai does finally go through with that thing that was holding him back – he confesses his love to Shu Lien. He does it quietly, in a cave, just before dying. She begs him to save his energy for Jen to arrive with the antidote, and then to use his last breath to meditate as he was trained to, to “rise to eternity.”

“Don’t waste it on me,” she says. But he does.

Thankfully I don’t have the same missed love connection troubles as Li Mu Bai, but man, I’ve been on that mountain for a long time. I dedicated my life to my training and now it’s like – oh shit. Should I have had a kid at some point? Was that a mistake? I didn’t even make it to full monk status.

Don’t worry. I’m not gonna hand over my sword to anybody. I love my sword. I’m just saying – I love when movies have these relatable emotions in them, things that you may connect to differently at different ages, transforming the whole experience. This can happen in a regular contemporary drama, with characters who face difficulties you may have run into before. For me it’s even better when these recognizable human experiences are not literal, like when they happen in a kung fu or samurai movie. Life seems a little more exciting when you look at it through that lens.

CONFIDENTIAL TO FRED TOPEL: The cover of the movie doesn’t have a comma in the title, but the opening credits do.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 13th, 2017 at 10:49 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”

  1. One of my all-time favorites. I was initially just excited to see a martial arts wuxia film in theaters but was totally blown away by it on a whole other level.

    I’ve re-watched it many times since but I honestly don’t think I realized HOW great this movie is and how much it speaks to me until I re-watched it earlier this year before the sequel came out. I always thought it was great and an emotional journey but damn did it not completely and totally emotionally floor me this time.

    I related so much to your review Vern (specifically the second-to-last paragraph) and I think that why it hit me so hard this time. Since I saw it the time-before-last I’ve been on my own emotional roller-coaster that did not end the way I was even hoping to meet it a third of the way (lowered my standards to not even half) so watching this movie I’ve always loved and connected with and to learn that I was in a part of my life that sometimes feels like it’s nothing BUT regrets and failure and I was completely on the same wavelength with Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien just floored me. THEN to learn that I had spent the last many years (even more so the last year and a half) to try and do what they did to give a younger person a good chance at life except mine pretty much ended in failure and personal embarrassment was too much for me and have to admit I got the manly-tears going.

    As Vern stated already, even better it’s able to do all that in a ‘lowly’ “kung-fu” movie that doesn’t skimp on it’s genre-trappings and expectations. What a great, great movie.

  2. Speaking of throwback wuxia melodramas that are focused less on the action, Vern, have you ever seen Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s THE ASSASSIN?

    It’s kind of a hard sell because there is very, VERY little action in it, the characters are inscrutable, and the plot is de-emphasized to the point of incomprehensibility. But it’s also probably one of the most beautiful films ever made, and despite its at times almost meditative tone it’s a powerful sensual experience the whole way through. Personally, it might be my favorite film of the current decade.

    If you haven’t checked it out and are feeling adventurous, I think you’d at least find it interesting as a film that luxuriates in the style of old wuxia while not doing most of the things those movies usually did.

  3. I realize now that my post is basically ‘Man this movie reminds me of how bad I failed at life! Four stars!!’

    Dan: I second the recommendation for THE ASSASSIN. Not for everyone due to reasons you already discussed but if you’re in the mood for such a film I think it hits the spot.

  4. When I saw Crouching Tiger in the theater I have to admit I didn’t get it, and therefore didn’t like it. I’ve never put it down or not recommended it because I always understood that I didn’t get it. I still admired it for the pure cinematic beauty of it and great actors it put on the American big screen (having been a long time fan of Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh). Reading your review, now, 17 years later makes me want to revisit it and see if I can now get why it was widely considered a masterpiece.

    Since you have pointed out a connection between this and Brokeback Mountain (one that I did get and thoroughly enjoyed) and even Hulk (which I also liked more than most)regarding forbidden love, have you considered looking into more of Ang Lee’s films? Particularly The Ice Storm, a movie I remember liking but not much else. I believe it had a lot to do with family dysfunction. I’m sure a review of it from you would drive me to watch it again.

  5. geoffreyjar,

    THE ASSASSIN so specifically caters to a number of my tastes and obsessions, in a way that seems inexplicable if you don’t share my exact tastes, that it sometimes feels like a movie made only for me. So it’s always nice to hear from someone else on its wavelength.

  6. Man, I haven’t seen this movie in forever, so I don’t remember a whole lot other than this was the first movie my whole family sat together and watched on DVD, which was so new that we had to hook up my PS2 in the living room.

    Definitely need to give this one a rewatch.

    By the way, this reminds me of how Asian culture was really in vogue in the US in the 00s, you had interest in martial arts films like this as well as the rise in popularity of Japanese anime and manga, I guess asholes today would just call that “cultural appropriation” because any opportunity to make white people feel bad about themselves can’t be turned down, but it’s fun to remember the time when taking an interest in foreign cultures was cool.

  7. le freke – I’ve never seen THE ICE STORM, but I’ve always heard it was good. That’s a good idea, I should watch some of the ones I haven’t seen. BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK was okay, but I didn’t write a review.

  8. Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors (ever since I watched The Wedding Banquet) and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is probably my favorite film of his. He has a certain emotional way of approaching stories that resonates with me regardless of being in similar situations with the characters or not. This one also has a soundtrack I love.

    I recommend The Ice Storm – it floored me the first time I watched it.

    I’ll give The Assassin a try.

  9. Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors (ever since I watched The Wedding Banquet) and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is probably my favorite film of his. He has a certain emotional way of approaching stories that resonates with me regardless of being in similar situations with the characters or not. This one also has a soundtrack I love.

    I recommend The Ice Storm – it floored me the first time I watched it.

    I’ll give The Assassin a try.

  10. When I first heard of that movie, it was a real headscratcher for me. One of our music TV channels let viewers submit movie reviews, that they published then in its teletext (it was during the “many people already have internet, but it’s still something special and flatrates weren’t a thing yet, so the kids used other things too” days). Apparently one dude saw the movie on an airplane, months before the huge Oscarbuzz started or people even talked about the movie in Europe. And that guy’s review read like that:

    “If you’ve never heard of Ang Lee, the master of Kung Fu comedy, you don’t know anything about movies. CTHD is his newest masterpiece, full of the funniest fightscenes, outside of a Jackie Chan movie!” (Then lots of shit about how funny the movie was.)

    Therefore I was for a long time convinced that this movie was a comedy. Then the buzz started and I was confused how nobody mentioned how funny the movie supposedly was. Then I started to realize that this isn’t a comedy (which was definitely confirmed when I watched it), but got more and more confused about why someone would write a review like that. Maybe that guy was stoned or he just saw the trailer and thought it was hi-la-ri-ous how they jumped from tree to tree? That still doesn’t explain the “Ang Lee is the master of Kung Fu comedy” line.

  11. Wow, what a spambot review of CROUCHING TIGER!

  12. I must admit that I was one of those fans of Hong Kong movies that found this to be a watered down version of the genre I loved. Perhaps it’s time for a re-watch?

  13. I haven’t seen Crouching Tiger for a long time – when I was a teenager I always preferred HERO (largely because of the fight sequences), but now I haven’t seen either for a while. Maybe it is time to buy proper copies of them and rewatch.

    I would also be very interested in seeing Vern review THE ASSASSIN. To be honest, I was one of the people it didn’t work so much for – it’s exceptionally pretty, and there are some really interesting sequences, but they are spread apart by long, long (but pretty) stretches that I found boring. I think maybe it’s one of the few films that suffered (for me) from seeing it in a cinema – the big screen was nice, but feeling like I was pinned in one place was not. If I’d been at home playing with the dog while watching… Still, I’d be interested in a review.

  14. Even though period wuxia is not really my thing, I liked CTHD when it came out because it was interesting to see a high-powered kung fu film treated with such seriousness. I haven’t seen it in 15 years at least and I have no idea how I’d feel about it now, since I quickly got tired of that approach. I just don’t buy this whole beautiful violence thing anymore. Beyond my general disinterest in cinema that can best be described as “pretty,” it feels disingenuous to turn violence into Cirque du Soleil. Throw in all the floating lotus petals and balletic poses you want, it’s still fighting and killing. It’s ugly. That is the bedrock upon which all action is built: our own queasy fascination with violence. You take the brutality out of it and turn it into a dance and you take the excitement out of it too.

  15. First things first: respect and thanks to Jacob M. He’s quite right about that original review of CTHD, and the paragraph on Weinsteinising is as true today as it ever was. And shame on me for not spending more time in the Vern archive.

    That said, and I think you were right not to dwell on this Vern, CTHD remains the most successful foreign language movie of all time. I appreciate that because it opened up space for a lot of other movies to get made or at least more widely shown. But personally I appreciated that I could have a conversation with people about these movies and they suddenly had a point of reference. In your original review you not only talk about the fights as dance numbers but Chow Yun Fat tap dancing, and I think that is beautiful and very accurate. For years I’ve tried to explain that fights in the best martial arts movies are like the dances in musicals – they are not merely fun, they actually develop the plot and illustrate character (true of all good movie fights, for that matter). CTHD does this so clearly that everybody gets it.

    But if you’re going on a wuxia trip, I’d love to see a review of John Woo’s LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY, or Wong Kar-wai’s ASHES OF TIME (even if it’s only the, ahem, REDUX version). Or any of the King Hu classics, obviously.

  16. Oh, I missed Mr Majestyk’s compelling argument against fights as dance even as I was making an argument for it.

    I don’t have a coherent response to that. Chow Yun Fat can no more dance his way through a sword fight atop a bamboo forest than he can slide down a banister firing two guns at once as squibs explode around him, but in character both work to drive the story and, at least for me, the excitement. And bloody violence can still be spectacular and beautiful, even as it eliminates ballet and lotus petals.

  17. I’m not saying I’m against all stylization of violence, or that it should always be as realistic and off-putting as possible. I just think there’s a line a film can cross where I stop connecting to the action, and that line is personal to me. I’m sure everyone else has one, too, whether its obvious wirework or CGI squibs or slow-mo, where the film’s style has made it impossible to accept the reality of the action and so it doesn’t really have any impact on you anymore.

    I realize that wuxia films often delve into the more positive, spiritual side of martial arts, and I’m not trying to downplay that. But I look at something like IP MAN as the ideal way to deal with that. We can clearly see that martial arts has made Ip Man a strong and decent person as he puts the values his craft have taught him into use in his daily life, but there is a sadness about him. I believe that comes from knowing that all his inner peace derives from learning the art of war. That interpretation is supported by the treatment of the film’s first real scene of violence when he obliterates the room full of Japanese soldiers. The fights prior to that were skirmishes, tests of will, battles of egos, and as such the violence was largely symbolic. They worried more about smashing vases than they did about hurting each other. But when the violence became real, when it became life or death and not a game between privileged men, it was harsh and brutal and very, very unpretty. Those graceful movements and noble singularly of purpose that make Ip Man cut such a noble figure are put to their true, base use: pummeling the life from other human beings as efficiently as possible. It provides balance to the treatment of fighting as a gentleman’s pastime in the first half of the film. That, to me, is the beauty of martial arts: that it teaches you to control and contain the violence within you, not that it teaches you to make violence beautiful.

  18. It isn’t until I read the review I realized that Jen(Ziyi Zhang) reminds me of Toph in AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. One of the disappointing things or blessings(depending on how you look at it) that the live action movie failed is we never got to see Toph, who first appears in season 2 and becomes a member of “Team Avatar” and one of the most popular characters of the animated series in live action. She’s this little girl who comes from a wealthy family and raised to be a proper lady but because she’s blind her overprotective parents think she’s helpless and keep her at home sheltered from the outside world. She’s really an incredibly strong and badass earthbender and secretly goes out fighting in underground earthbender UFC-like fights. She runs away from home and joins Aang and his friends and teaches him how to earthbend. As disappointing as the live action Last Airbender movie was, it would have been amazing to see Toph on the big screen.

  19. Wish I edited the last comment to say Toph’s full name “Toph Bei-Fong”.

  20. Thanks for a lovely review of one of my all time favorites. This movie came out when I was fifteen and it made a huge impression on me. I was just realizing because of stuff like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and FIGHT CLUB that movies had this raw kinetic energy and potential lawlesness, but I didn’t necessarily relate to the worldview these movies espoused. Then the early aughties had this glut of fucking profoundly beautiful, operatic, romantic works like CROUCHING TIGER and MAGNOLIA and ROYAL TENENBAUMS and AMELIE that wore their hearts on their sleeve and believed there were magical secret worlds just beyond or maybe sometimes within our grasp.

    So I absolutely associate this with falling in love with cinema and realizing what I most cherish about it.

    I gotta tell you people, during one of my many subsequent viewings, with several first-timers who were clearly TOTALLY on point with it and enraptured with the film, a certain family member who is in many ways the archetypal “Trump-supporting uncle” walked into the film during the scene where Li Mu Bai in his dying moments decides he would rather wander by her side as a ghost than be enlightened, and immediately started loudly snorting and guffawing and “oh PLEASE”ing and basically we were all on the verge of tears and he ruined it and this happened at least a decade ago but now I’m piping mad just telling you all this story. And of course he stayed until the end so that he could snort at her jumping off the bridge and ruin that as well. What the fuck!

  21. renfield: My grandmother, who *shock* is also a Fox News-watching Trump-voter*, did the same thing with us. She LOVED coming in and making fun of and criticizing movies I/we watched that she wasn’t interested in. She was hardcore that if you didn’t read the books she read or watched the TV/Movies she watched, listened to the music she listened to (or even had a passing interest in), it was garbage and you were an idiot for consuming. Due to my personality-type (not to mention other ‘problems’ that were not diagnosed yet) I became VERY self-aware of the stuff I liked and along with me not being the most popular person in school I really felt something was wrong with me with what I enjoyed watching.

    So yeah I can relate, I have a whole list of movies I like that are accompanied by memories of my grandma coming in and telling me is shit and I’m shit for liking.**

    *Please note that I do not think such behavior is exclusive to that sub-set of the population. There are plenty of liberal/progressive assholes who also delight in shitting on other’s tastes and enjoyment.

    *Still love my grandma btw

  22. Thanks to this review, I’m definitely going to rewatch this one. I saw it once, in the theater all those years ago. I thought it was fine but I didn’t love it, didn’t necessarily see what all the fuss was about. But it would be interesting to take stock of it now as a decidedly middle-age guy.

  23. We thank you for loving your sword, Vern. I have similar feelings about my own.

    I think you’re hitting the nail right on the head with the parallels to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN- to me the common thread through all Lee’s movies is societal repression and the story of what forces can break through it. In THE WEDDING BANQUET one of the characters says something like, “What you are witnessing is the result of millenia of Chinese repression” while everyone is partying themselves silly. Maybe only someone with a core sense of that could make SENSE AND SENSIBILITY a masterpiece?

  24. its hard to overstate how important this movie was to me. i was already deep into hong kong cinema and was tracking cthd from the first trailers with intense anticipation. i took my younger sisters to see it opening day (christmas) in a packed single screen theater in a chinese neighborhood near LA and it was one of the most glorious screenings i’ve been lucky enough to attend. to see a long mocked and derided genre that i loved dearly, elevated and honored in a way that made it appreciable to the masses, while still retaining everything i loved about? i was so overjoyed i became a one-man street team, talking about it constantly and bringing multiple groups of friends and family to see it. since then there have been similar events and “buzz” movies that i thought were “just for me” but somehow hit big, and just as many that i thought were going to explode and take their creators to the next level, but instead were ignored. i dont invest so personally in many films anymore, but cthd is a beautiful reminder that magic can and does still sneak out of the grasping claws of the movie business and unexpectedly change the world.

  25. I came down off the mountain a few years ago, coaxed by the love of a woman who…

    I’d finish that sentence if I knew how to. I just know that, now that I am down, I can’t find my way back up. I wasn’t getting much done up there anyway but, if I can’t have her, I’d rather be there.

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