Story: After a long time of meditation swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) returns to his former comrade-in-arms Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh),
who is now owning an escort business. Li wants her to deliver his sword "Green Destiny" to Sir Te in Beijing. For years, Li and Yu didn't have
the courage to confess their love to each other, but now that Li seems to leave the path of a warrior, this could be a sign for Yu.
However, Li's sword gets stolen in Beijing. It doesn't take long for Yu to find out that the thief is Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a governor, who is a guest of Sir Te. At first, Yu keeps this a secret. She starts becoming friends with Jen Yu and finds out that the girl soon has to agree to an arranged marriage. But Jen Yu would rather want to lead the life of a sword fighter, with her secret love "Dark Cloud" (Chang Chen), a master thief, at her side.
Eventually, Li Mu Bai comes to Beijing and finds out that Jade Fox (Chang Pei-pei), his sworn enemy who poisoned his master years ago, is in town, too. For the last time, Li wants to reach for his sword again and avenge his master. But at the same time he sees a potential student in Jen Yu who on her part doesn't want to be taught by Li, because of what Jade Fox told her about him.
Without guidance and a master naïve Jen Yu gets caught up in a vortex of corruption and is on the verge of trapping everybody else in it, too...
Review: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a movie about which almost everything has already been said. A masterpiece, which has no equal and
which opened a door to a whole new world for me. Those who want to read a neutral review are probably in the wrong place. Ang Lee's work arose my latent
interest in China and martial arts and even made me study Chinese in the first place. Now that a few years and the initial enthusiasm have passed, you might
discover one or two little flaws in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", but it still remains a fact that the movie stands as an impressive revival of the wuxia
genre (even if it hasn't really been dead) and that it showed Western audiences the kind of poetic images as well as tragic fantasy stories about sword fighters
and unfulfilled love which Chinese have already been fascinated by for decades.
The movie's story is based on the forth volume of Wang Dulu's five volume work "Crane-Iron Pentalogy" and tells the story of Li Mu Bai, a swordsman, who
gets weary of fighting and isn't capable of confessing his feelings towards Yu Shu Lien. But this storyline often takes a backseat as in fact Jen Yu is the
movie's protagonist and her love story with "Dark Cloud" shows some similarities to the one of Li/Yu. It's about a love beyond reach, revenge and society's
constraints for women. No new territory for director Ang Lee, who has already gone in similar directions with movies like "The Wedding Banquet". But this
time he fulfilled one of his personal dreams and created one of those typical wuxia (fantasy-swordplay) movie's, which he himself admired so much as a
child. You just need to mix up Greek tragedy with fantastic fighting sequences and a wonderful story, and there you have a really impressive
piece of work.
Many fans of Asian cinema didn't understand what was supposed to be so special about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", as everything this movie shows us, could
already be seen back in the 60s or 70s. Of course this is right, but with this movie we just get the right mixture of tragedy and action. But more importantly,
you have never seen a wuxia-movie produced so brilliantly and expensively. Peter Pau's ("Perhaps Love",
"The Promise") cinematography impresses with fantastic images. We get lovely bamboo-forests, as well as fog-covered mountains
and deadly deserts. No efforts were spared to eternalize China's beautiful landscape.
Besides, Tan Dun's soundtrack is just fantastic and manages to capture the dreamy and calm atmosphere with cello-solos by Yo-Yo Ma as well as the fighting sequences' dynamic approach.
Ang Lee has been well aware of the fact that he wouldn't reinvent the genre. Numerous genre-typical clichés are being covered. For instance, one of the
main characters has to avenge his master, who of course has been killed by poisoning, or there is a student who chooses the wrong path and ends up on the
opponent's side. But director Lee is obviously playing with those stereotypes and he tells his story with a wink to all those familiar with wuxia movies
while managing to show Western audiences (in a very concentrated dose), what this genre is all about. You can see proof of that very nicely in the tavern-scene,
when Jen Yu starts picking a fight. As is typical for such movies nobody recognizes her as a woman.
Some humorous side blows towards the genre add a nice touch, too. For instance, after a chase scene over roofs Li Mu says that this is enough flying for a day and "Dark Cloud" actually complains about all the air traffic over the roofs…
The fights are, without a doubt, an important aspect why the movie had so much success. To fans I don't need to introduce Yuen Woo-Ping anymore. He's the one responsible for the fight choreography here and the West has already discovered him as can be seen because of his work for movies like "Matrix". In "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" we see a lot of kung fu, but we also find some facets of internal martial arts, like Tai Chi. As the movie is about the powers within and the Wudang mountains, where this kind of internal martial arts are actually taught, this doesn't come as a surprise.
Of course, there is also a lot of wire-fu to be seen, which means that in fantasy movies like this one, individuals are actually able to fly, if they just train hard and long enough. Weightlessly the protagonists fight each other, and especially Zhang Zivi (in fact a trained dancer not a martial artist) as well as Michelle Yeoh, of course, give it their best in some very impressive fights. The one in which Yu Shu Lien, armed with various weapons, has to take on Jen Yu is still one of my top 10 best fighting sequences, ever.
Even Chow Yun-Fat (due to some tricks) cuts a fine figure as the superior master. But in fact, it's the rhythm that choreographer Yuen put into those fight scenes which makes them so unforgettable.
Unfortunately, Chow Yun-Fat's portrayal of Li Mu Bai is a bit reserved, as well as Michelle Yeoh's, even if later on she is allowed to get out of her shell a
bit more. On the other hand, that's what the story demands of these characters, so you can't blame them. But unfortunately especially
Chow starts to become merely a supporting actor at some point.
The movie's secret star is without a doubt Zhang Ziyi, and this even though this is only her second role in a movie after "The Road Home". But she still convinces with her portrayal of the naïve and quick-tempered girl, who fights for her freedom and is unwilling to be told by society what "happiness" is supposed to be like for her. Playing at her side is Taiwan star Chang Chen ("Silk") as the soft-hearted thief. Even if the implementation of their background story interferes a bit with the movie's continuity, it is still one of the most beautiful parts of the picture, especially with regard to the images of the desert.
Also appearing as a brilliantly elaborated villain is Cheng Pei-pei, star of various wuxia flicks from the 60s.
By the way, the movie's original title is a so-called "Chengyu", a proverb consisting of 4 Chinese characters and in this case means something like "hidden talent". A talent which is kept hidden for you to surprise others with it - and that's what Jen Ren does in the end. Her skills as a sword fighter are incredible, but if nobody shows her the right path, she's condemned to do bad things with them. As a woman she has a hard time, because she has to fit into her role that society forces upon her, which is why she can't actually be admitted to the Wudang school. Ang Lee is putting a lot of work into this part of the story, so that the movie clearly focuses on its female characters. That's why the movie doesn't miss out on tragedy, either, and eventually comes up with a great finale.
There are a lot of reasons to watch "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". The fights, the love-story, the music, the story itself and most importantly those
gorgeous images of China's various landscapes. When Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu are balancing on those bamboo-trees, it is a scene which embodies the same peace and
calmness which we later see between Li and Yu Shu Lien when they are (between the lines) confessing their love to each other.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a brightly polished, brilliant wuxia drama. For a lot of newcomers it will be the introduction to an entire new world and for Asian cinema fans it will be a successful revival of a great genre!