As we’re nearing the end of another decade’s worth of films I thought it was time for a quick holiday so I decided for a three-movie long tour of Asia. Two of the films in this triple bill are historical pieces, shot in the country’s native tongue and featuring subtitles for Western viewers such as myself. The third film, for the most part, is in the English Language although the scenes in other languages aren’t subtitled, but then again that’s kind of the point.
We start in China in the year 1779 for some high-flying martial arts courtesy of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film tells the story of the sword ‘The Green Destiny’ and the way it unites all four of the movie’s central characters. The sword initially belongs to retired warrior Li Mu Bai who gives it to his friend and fellow warrior Yu Shu Lien so that she may deliver it as a gift to their mutual acquaintance Sir Te. One of the threads running throughout Crouching Tiger is the unrequited romance between Mu Bai and Shu Lien, which is a classic cinematic love that will never speak its name. Just as Shu Lien is about to present the sword to Sir Te; it is stolen by a female warrior believed to be the elusive Jade Fox. Years before, Fox murdered Mu Bai’s master and he’s now out for revenge however it later transpires that his nemesis has a pupil in the form of noblewoman Jen. Jen is initially presented as the courteous daughter from a respected family but its later revealed that Fox was training her up to be another deadly warrior. Jen’s other story involves desert warrior Lo, a man who she originally met after he stole her fan. The flashbacks, in which Jen and Lo’s romance is detailed, signalled the moment where the film ground to a halt for me. I did feel that Lee and the three screenwriters took too long with this particular part of the story and to an extent the narrative never recovered. Thankfully Crouching Tiger’s final act was full of action and emotion as the stage was set for Jen’s wedding and the final showdown between Mu Bai and Jade Fox.
I remember watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on VHS soon after it was released and at the time I think I rather enjoyed it. However, this time round, I did feel the film was a little patchy especially from a storytelling perspective. As I previously alluded to the pacing of the story varies throughout the film’s two hour running time. Starting off at a brisk jog, things slow to a halt during the Jen/Lo flashbacks before kicking into full throttle towards the end. That being said there were several elements of the story I liked from the romance between Su Lien and Mu Bai; to Jen’s attempts to get the upper hand on all the other characters. Indeed, one of the great things about Crouching Tiger is the fact that there are two strong central female characters who are well-rounded and can stand up for themselves even against the men. Whilst narratively the film may have a few issues, visually it’s one of the most spectacular movies I’ve watched since I began. The martial arts scenes in particular are stunning especially those involving the high-flying Jen. Jen and Su Lien’s final battle is especially breathtaking and I think that Lee is brilliant at capturing these battles on screen. I’m not surprised that cinematographer Peter Pau won an award for his brilliant camera work on the film whilst further honours went to Crouching Tiger’s soaring score and its fantastic period art direction. Even though it didn’t win the big prize, Lee’s film did pick up the award for Foreign Language Feature, an honour that I’m sure it deserved. Although it did have its problems, I enjoyed the fact that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was even nominated for the Best Picture prize in the first place. Overall it was a stunningly gorgeous film to watch and one that I’m glad is soon to get a long-awaited sequel.