VOD film review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
James R | On 06, Sep 2021
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi
“A sword by itself rules nothing. It only comes alive in skilled hands,” says Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A warrior in 19th-century China, he’s talking after years of taking lives with the sword and, full of sorrow and regret, he’s entering retirement. As for his sword, the Green Destiny, he asks for it to be kept safe the house of wealthy benefactor Sir Te. Taking the sword there is Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), Li Mu Bai’s old friend, for whom he has long had feelings.
Those feelings go both ways, although they have never been spoken out of respect to her former fiancé, who was Li Mu Bai’s friend. That hushed bond sets the tone for Ang Lee’s bewitching blockbuster of action and restraint, a tale of loyalty and love that’s rooted in duty and devotion.
That web of allegiance gets more complex when the Green Destiny is stolen at Sir Te’s house by a masked thief. They swiftly turn out to be Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of Governor Yu who is determined to escape the life planned out for her. She, in turn, is the apprentice of Jade Fox, who killed Li Mu Bai’s former mentor. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse chase for the sword, the thief, the fighter and their lover, and the forest of obligations and grudges is strewn with equally passionate deceit and double-crosses.
And yet, for all these feelings at play, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s mood is a gentle, quiet one. That’s partly because he’s seeking to bring a rich, soulful depth to the martial arts world, a cross-cultural American-meets-China epic that borrows from both. He works with Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary choreographer fresh from The Matrix, to craft set pieces that are graceful as well as jaw-dropping, the wire work influencing countless movies since but still wowing in their own right, as we see warriors floating in trees and gliding over nighttime rooftops.
They’re kept few and far between, with a deliberately slow pace introduced from the off, taking the time to establish the tender feelings as play. That gives more time to the cast to convey their inner dilemmas and desires, from Chow Yun Fat’s thoughtful presence to Michelle Yeoh’s wonderfully determined warrior. She’s the stuff of legend herself, but has the confidence and experience not to announce it. The result is a thoughtful epic that gives its moments of action all the more clout, from Zhang Ziyi’s electric defiance as she takes on dozens of men in a bar to a breathtaking cave showdown. But it’s a chamber piece of whispered thrills, a masterclass in character through action, always using stunts to flesh out each person further. A sword only comes alive in skilled hands, but these hands are governed by concealed hearts – and each blow is a gesture of unspoken emotion.