The Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-contending Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is all about a rigid, roughly linear object. It is long—two feet, nine inches long, to be exact. Fairly impressive by itself, it “needs skillful manipulation,” we are told, to really come into its own. The gears of the film’s plot grind along slowly at first, but get their necessary lubrication when a sweaty crone, who bemoans past mistreatment at the hands of callous male mentors, sets out to steal the object in question. Yin lunges after yang, and all hell breaks loose.
Ang Lee describes his career, with certainly unintended aptness, as a process of “attacking one genre after another,” and his assault on the martial arts tradition has disfigured it past all recognition. A lot of people seem to agree the genre, certainly never vain, is improved by the facelift. Lee’s respectable budget, staggering production team, digital capacities, and luminous gift for suffusing his screens with dignity have all been used to great effect here. The film boasts some spectacular chase, fight, and—the big draw—flight scenes. True, the hyperactive camera sometimes makes these sequences seem composed of all blows and no bodies, and the stomach-turning verisimilitude that lurks between the stylized surfaces of classic Hong Kong violence is an antecedent long since forgotten, but that’s okay. The first and final fight scenes in the film are mesmerizing events. What’s stranger, and perhaps less okay, is what the movie, beneath all the glint and gliding through air, is about. Ang Lee and reviewers refer in vague terms to echoes of Chinese myth in its images and story. Yes, certainly, but I was listening more closely to the hoarse and rather menacing bellows of the contemporary American/Western/global zeitgeist that I’ll swear are there. Believe the hype: this is, in fact, The Ice Storm with a patina of boxing and bamboo. And the cruelest part is that not even the dazzling catharsis provided by computer-enhanced violence, or the childlike marvel at the largeness of the world that all the voluptuous Oriental pageantry is there to provide, can dampen the force of the film’s very un-kung-fu conclusions: about the illusionary nature of escapist fantasy, the poor wages earned by a true heart, and the incontrovertibility of the age-old observation that love is a battlefield—and of course, about the fierceness of the war between the genders and the implacable, potentially destructive power of sex.
I think many people don’t agree with me about the mood of the film. And I think the subtitles and sword fights have mystified a few eager viewers (possibly, not necessarily, overlapping with the set of many people who don’t agree with me) into granting the film less ambiguity and sophistication than it deserves. In any case, I take the plot as follows:
Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (played with impressive subtlety by Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, respectively) are a pair of renowned martial artists, old friends, and partners, dealing with some long-standing romantic tension. (They’ve been compared to Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day, but Chow and Yeoh are more beautiful people, and far more on top of things; I think David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files are the better referents, myself.) Shu Lien is the palpable epitome of postfeminist tragedy: fit, successful, independent, and admired by all, she nonetheless hasn’t been able to make a go of it with the right guy. Mu Bai is by all appearances not the best one for her to set her sights upon. She hangs on his every word with bated breath and searching, dry-crying eyes. He probably feels the same way (well-meaning old folk assure her that he does, in response to which she just looks sadder), but it’s hard for her or us to tell for sure, and he throws her few bones. His eyes stubbornly avoid hers, and he stammers out some inconsistent Taoish nonsense about transcendence and days ended in peace and occasionally seems on the verge of making some felicitous proposition—but then pulls back or yields to interruptions.
Shu Lien’s great hope hinges on Mu Bai’s new resolve to settle down in life—to call an end to his pursuit of his mentor’s killer and to retire the Green Destiny. A tasteful enough name, it refers to the above-mentioned sword, a weapon of true refinement that certainly boosts the fighting prowess of whomever takes hold of it. Above and beyond its phallic cred, the sword introduces an isolated note of historical blurring into the film. Chow Yun Fat’s queue and the location of China’s capital in Peking set the story in the Qing dynasty (17th through early 20th centuries), and the Green Destiny is four hundred years old. So far, so good. But then we learn that the sword is engraved with a technique already extinct by the end of the Han dynasty (3rd century C.E.). I’m betting this is no oversight. Is Lee poking fun at the historical incongruities that many martial arts movies gleefully allow (think Jet Li striding through the Qing dynasty in shades)? But Crouching Tiger is really not a fun-poking movie. Could it be that the Green Dynasty is supposed to stand outside history, its origins obscure, itself perhaps the origin and arbiter of history? We can imagine Mu Bai’s restless eyes turning skyward, earthward, and skyward again in genuine bewilderment as he ponders this question, while Shu Lien’s guarded tears vanish into her cup of tea. In any case, it’s a hell of a sword. “It only looks so pure because blood washes so easily from its blade.”
Mu Bai never gets to put away the sword. His mentor’s killer, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who turns out to be a homely older woman, fox-like in only the more unfortunate ways, shows up as the governess and clandestine martial arts instructor to a fetching, nubile, nobleman’s daughter named Jen (Zhang Ziyi). Jen is a gifted fighter, and naturally she is straining at her gilded bit, anxious to escape an arranged marriage and take up the stormy, nomadic life of the martial artists she reads about in books. She says as much to Shu Lien, who quickly assures her that living the dream is not so fun as the books make it out to be (the first and clearest sign that the film is dutifully committed to elevating itself and us above the escapist gutters where its antecedents in the genre wasted their unexamined lives) and firmly advises her to submit to the marriage. The implication here is that, for poor Shu Lien, a life spent running with the warriors was no good substitute for domestic bliss (which she did not in fact renounce but which was denied her by circumstance). And she seems awfully adamant when she insists that Jen be married—and neutralized—as soon as possible.
Shu Lien knows what she’s doing. Jen is about to ruin everything. At the bidding of the bitter, venal, man-hating Jade Fox (here the master-student relationship that is so often the emotional pivot of these films is re-imagined in gritty, dysfunctional terms: Jade Fox hovers over Jen with crude, very physical jealousy even as she seethes with obvious resentment toward her; Jen brushes her mistress off with just as obvious contempt and yet risks life and rectitude to help her out; it’s a bit like Sharon Stone and that awful pimp in Casino), Jen steals the Green Destiny and thus sets off all sorts of chases and scuffles and even a few violent deaths (though no one gets beaten to death—it’s all quick demises here, knives and arrows). And Jen also spoils Mu Bai’s plans to retire and presumably to shelter Shu Lien. When he meets Jen, his wandering, death-defying eyes focus and follow suit with a smile for the first time in the film. She, for her part, is so delighted to meet the hero she’s admired only by reputation that she pays him a nocturnal visit to return the sword. The story could have wrapped up here, but Mu Bai keeps the ball rolling by setting a new goal: he wants Jen as his pupil. Here, we pointedly bear in mind that Jade Fox has told us all that these rare male-female teaching relationships often overstep the bounds of spirituality, and that Mu Bai’s telling Jen, “I’ve always wanted a worthy pupil,” could be read as fairly cold to Shu Lien. The aging hero is besotted; his mid-life crisis has made the predictable transition from vague metaphysical musings to lust for a younger woman. Jen knows it; she asks him toward the end, “Is it the sword you want, or me?” Shu Lien saw it coming from the beginning; she says resignedly, “I knew she would intrigue you.” And this little girl has given Mu Bai his sword back! The morning after she comes to return it, we see him outside in the cool of dawn, fencing—with himself. (Shu Lien greets his escapades with resigned placidity, an instructive contrast to, say, Annette Benning in American Beauty.)
Everything spirals forward. Subplots ensue. Jen remains the star of the film, beside the sword, in that her actions and fate drive the story, and it is she who brings it to its melancholy end. Much ado has been made over the fact that this action film has a girl hero, and, wow, what a girl! Jen certainly is a handful. She pouts, stamps her feet, flatters, betrays, trounces, and bloodies scores of men. We see her in her bedchamber (when before does a martial arts film get so many bedchamber scenes?), grooming herself and simmering with her considerable pubescent sexual energy, which she uses, in a simultaneously precocious and prurient fashion, to dominate the plot and the film. Not once, but twice, the lucky audience gets to watch this uptown girl, worn-out and disheveled, wake up in rough beds, in damp caves, where coarser characters have brought her. While Chow and Yeoh are both action stars from Hong Kong, Zhang Ziyi is a neophyte actress from the Chinese mainland. Crouching Tiger is her second film; she made her debut in Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home. Rumor has it that Zhang Yimou picked up Zhang Ziyi when Gong Li, his longtime leading lady and mistress, got married—to someone else. Miss Zhang is a fine heiress to the seductive manipulatrix Gong Li plays in films like Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon; it’s the dark side of girl power, vaguely emasculating and utterly irresistible. Along with its art-house sumptuousness and its fascination with China’s barren Western frontiers, Zhang Ziyi’s presence is an indication of the influence on Crouching Tiger of the mainland’s Fifth Generation films—sensual, serious films for an international audience, conceived in a society that is worlds away from the baffled, happy-go-lucky, light-heartedly democratic Hong Kong that crystallized the form of the martial arts film.
With such a hottie at the helm, Crouching Tiger becomes a tense sexual drama, and virtually every fight is animated by either Mu Bai’s bright lust for Jen, Jade Fox’s possibly lusty possessiveness of Jen, or Shu Lien’s subtly depicted and amply sublimated rivalry with Jen. The film’s take on lust and love, however, is not all about triangles and bitterness. In a fine subplot, Jen, against a desert backdrop, tussles with, is abducted by, and falls for a noble savage (from the Turkic ethnic group that inhabits China’s far northwest) her own age named Lo (Chang Chen). Lo is incredibly sexy and, in his own irreverent way, a true gentleman. Until circumstances force her to leave him, he and Jen have a perfectly healthy relationship, though, she being what she is, they have to beat each other to a pulp before they can consummate it. Tellingly, there is no art to their martial encounters, and there are no swords either (Lo doesn’t need one). Instead, there’s old-fashioned, down-and-dirty, hand-to-hand combat, followed by wholesome consummation of sexual tension, unpolluted by obsession or repression. In the end, the tentative cynicism about romantic love that haunts the rest of the film infects their relationship. As is the case with Mu Bai and Shu Lien, the curtain falls on Lo and Jen on a note of apparent poignance and deeper irony that doesn’t kill, but instead arms, the poignance. After putting him through some torment toward the end of the film, Jen hangs over the edge of a cliff and asks Lo to name his wish, referring to a folk story he told her about a boy who, in the hopes of bringing back his dead parents, jumped off a cliff to make his wish come true, only to float off into the clouds and never return. Lo asks that the two of them might be together and unhindered forever, and Jen hurls herself down. She glides away from him, the camera moves to the clouds, and the credits roll, leaving unanswered with fanfare the question: will he get his wish, or will she be lost to him forever in granting it? Here is the film’s final word on the tragic puzzle of love: the grand, superhuman achievements that make one love, and that love makes one dream of, can deprive lovers of the human joys of love’s fulfillment and endurance.
And this is a movie that brought the Cannes crowd to its feet, that has sparked any number of upbeat, adrenaline-pumped reviews. I myself found it sad. It is sad on its own terms, and there is also something sad in what it and its reception imply about the happier genre on which it reflects. The great martial arts films manage, through an ineffable alchemy, to draw even intelligent audiences in with their crude effects and crude characterizations. That alchemy has a lot to do with the way violence is wrapped in humor, with the generous spirit that allows the often undignified, slightly geeky heroes to triumph through their mastery of the sacrosanct, contorting, emotionally- and morally-charged art of fighting. If sex and romance are involved they, like politics, are an uncomplicated, background concern—certainly, the movies don’t need them (witness how Jackie Chan cast his adorable girlfriend, Anita Mui, as his character’s mother in The Legend of Drunken Master). In many of these pictures, the master-student relationship, and in particular the conflict between master and student, is at the forefront, and if there is a conflict it is resolved amicably. But in Crouching Tiger such a resolution is impossible. With sex in the fray, each character’s status is in part determined by how well he or she works as eye candy for everyone else, on and off screen, and masters like Jade Fox and Mu Bai are bound to end up at the mercy of a student like Jen. Perhaps all of this is the inevitable result of the gentrification of the genre; with all those crazy computers at his disposal, Ang Lee did not have to struggle to keep his fight scenes away from the brink of absurdity, and, with that challenge gone, what else was there to focus on? Once the scrappy fighter finds he can leap onto roofs and wield shiny swords with balletic ease, self-destructive ennui sets in, and the challenge of the fight gives way to the world-shrinking mixed miracle of flight.
All this is not to say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a bad movie. It is a great movie, technically amazing, challenging, and smart. But it is a martial arts movie on the surface only, and to suggest, as critics have, that it be considered the next and higher stage in the evolution of the martial arts film might be a disservice to the movie, the genre, and hapless audiences everywhere. Even the most sophisticated moviegoer might one day find himself worn down by the traumas and disappointments of love, sex, and general emotional complexity, and hankering after the escapist antics of a Jet Li or a Jackie Chan. It would be a sad thing indeed if he were to find such antics rendered impotent and unenjoyable by the cutting designation of obsolescence—the hidden dragon that Crouching Tiger still threatens to unleash.