Synopsis: Lovers and martial artists fulfill their destinies in long-ago China.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an Ang Lee masterpiece that explores love, honor and freedom through martial arts. A sweeping love story with high adventure? I’m in…
Set in China during the 18th Century Qing Dynasty, the movie is based on a story from a 1930’s book series by Wang Dulu. We quickly meet Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, always a welcome screen presence) and Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat, star of several John Woo movies) at a country compound. Shu Lien runs her late father’s security company and is a superb martial artist. Mu Bai is a master of the Wudan school of fighting and also a monk. When he is not meditating he is vanquishing wicked rivals with his sword, Green Destiny. A man of the cloth and the sword? Confusing.
Mu Bai has ventured to visit Shu Lien before she travels to Beijing/Peking on a job for Sir Te who is hosting a new governor at his swanky estate. Mu Bai wants his friend Shu Lien to give his sword to Sir Te and hints that he will give up his fighting life. Shu Lien gazes at him meaningfully. It is clear that there are feelings between them, but because a zillion years ago she was engaged to one of his “brothers in arms,” they have been honor bound to not hook up. Weirdly, this seems only due to their own guilt — or at least his– because everyone else they know is encouraging them to finally get together.
The two would-be lovers have deep conversations about enlightenment and occasionally Mu Bai makes cryptic remarks that allude to romance, remarking once that feelings can be like hidden dragons. Passion dragons, perhaps ? Then Shu Lien levels him with a thirsty look. It seems like progress, but then he’ll launch into depressing philosophical screeds: the things we touch have no permanence… there is nothing we can hold onto in this world. Sigh…maybe we’ll have better luck with another pair of lovers…
Once in Beijing, Shu Lien presents the Green Destiny sword to Sir Te. He and everyone we meet in the movie goes on and on about how beautiful and important the sword is. Sir Te even punctuates an ode to the sword by using it to cleanly slice through a nice piece of pottery that was just nearby minding its own business.
Shu Lien is soon introduced to the new Governor’s daughter, Jen Yu, who is a pleasant and demure young woman, engaged to be married to a man from an important family. Jen and Shu Lien make a quick connection, with the younger woman telling her that she admires how she can be free to love whomever she pleases and have adventures like those she has read of in books. Shu Lien counsels her that fighters have rules and codes that they must live by.
Well! It turns out that Jen has reservoirs of determination and defiance. Somehow– it seems– she has become a sort of fighting savant. She had also been recently returned from a “kidnapping.” You see, her family was traveling across the Gobi Desert to one of her dad’s job postings when their caravan was set upon by bandits. Just before the attack, Jen was being toted along, whiling away the time examining a comb. Yes, a comb. (Things could be desperately boring before smart phones.) The caravan is set upon and a super hot young bandit, the gang’s leader, Lo aka Dark Cloud swoops in and grabs her comb. Unlike a normal person who would be like fine, take my comb, she is indignant and then furious when Lo gives her a cheeky wink. Her hidden fury arises and she takes off after him.
When she catches up with him, she starts to beats him to a pulp, demanding that he return her comb. Imagine what would happen if he actually took something valuable from her; like a brush. At one point they end up at his cave in the desert, a Phantom of the Opera-type lair full of luxury items. They get to know each other and although she is still full of rage, they end up falling in love under the stars and in the big stone soaking tub in his cave. Why would she go back to her parents? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie.
When she does return home, she makes nice. But is still full of repressed rage. It doesn’t help that her governess is a hateful wretch who barely lets Jen boss her around. Fantastically choreographed fights occur as Jen takes off, traveling hither and yon with Shu Lien and Mu Bai in hot pursuit. The monk and security chief agree that it would cause shame to Sir Te if the new Governor’s daughter is outed as a bellicose rogue rather than the demure young lady that her family and society expect.
One of Jen’s epic rebellions takes place at a busy inn where she has stopped for lunch and a room. Waiting outside for a table, she is quickly approached by burly men looking for a fight. Jen is dressed like a boy but, just like in Mulan, no one who is sighted would mistake her for a teenaged boy. She gets a table before the men can assault her and goes diva, imperiously ordering the waitstaff around. But before Jen can eat, a group of fighters approach her with strange weapons and even stranger monikers. Hello, Calico Swan with the razor sharp hand fan. Soon she will be dispatching them with insults and kicks to the face.
Periodically Shu Lien and Mu Bai catch up with Jen. They try to reason with her but she just insults them. Unprovoked, she spits out that Mu Bai’s Wudan monastery-fight school is a “whorehouse.” If someone said that about my old school, I’d be like, whatever, but this was a big insult hundreds of years ago. She relishes fighting them, but Mu Bai offers to become her teacher and lead her away from the dark path she is pursuing. Off she runs into the upper reaches of a bamboo forest canopy; Mu Bai’s pursuit and their confrontation fight scene is legendary.
There’s so much more in Crouching Tiger; Jen’s lover is waiting in the wings and Jade Fox, someone with a dark influence over her, lurks in the shadows. And how the eff are Shu Lien and Mu Bai supposed to get together when they are forever pursuing Jen?!
The whole film is beautiful and absorbing, and finally, haunting. Well, the ending can be interpreted as haunting or confounding. Movie lovers still debate the meaning of the ending. I expect that Westerners will have a harder time divining the finish. Fortunately, the themes of longing for love and freedom are clear.
@ the 2001 Oscars, the film won awards for Best Foreign Language Film (Taiwan), Best Art Direction (Timmy Yip), Best Original Score (Tan Dun) & Best Cinematography (Peter Pau).
P.S. Shout-out to Yuen Woo-ping for the martial arts choreography.
P.P.S. Click here to listen to Eternal Vow, composed by Tan Dun, with Yo-Yo Ma on cello.