The birth of the period Wuxia epic genre occurred on the Big Screen almost a decade ago. It is basically a cross-media genre broadly regarded as 'period martial arts with honour'. Encompassing the same concepts of loyalty and code of conduct as perhaps the Japanese Samurai code of Bushido, it has been evident in many Chinese and Hong Kong-based productions, although it only really broke through into mainstream Western (and global) audiences with the Millennium release of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. From it were born numerous successful and bigger-budget Wuxia movies, including House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and Curse of the Golden Flower, although Crouching Tiger remains the first of its kind in terms of true recognition - a benchmark in martial arts movies, and the real start of Wuxia's popularity in the West. But what made this film so great?
In late 18th Century China Legendary warrior swordsman and Wudang Master Li Mu-bai is commemorating the death of his master, and asks long-time friend Yu Shu-lien to take his prized and priceless sword - the Green Destiny - to Peking, a sign that he is finally putting his warrior life behind him - literally hanging up his sword. But when a mysterious masked thief steals the Green Destiny, Mu-bai and Shu-lien have to investigate the crime and recover it. Upon confronting the masked criminal, they find that not only is she partnered with the nefarious Jade Fox - the evil and vindictive woman who killed Mu-bai's master some time ago - but that she is also skilled in the acclaimed Wudang martial art: her techniques and manoeuvres leaving her capable of almost holding her own against Shu-lien, especially with the extra power of the Green Destiny sword behind her. Whilst Mu-bai is intent on persuading the young thief to become his new student, she proves to be more rebellious and damaged than expected, rejecting all the olive branches offered by both him and Shu-lien. All the while the two of them are highly aware that Jade Fox is still on the loose and needs to be stopped, once and for all.
A breathtaking epic brooding within the thinly veiled disguise of a Hollywood-runtime period-set martial arts piece, Crouching Tiger is a beautifully-shot, artistic masterpiece. With a shoestring budget of $15Million (for comparison, Matrix Revolutions was ten times that amount) Ang Lee worked wonders, giving us just enough of a feel for the lavish setting: China coming to life during its last ruling Dynasty, the sprawling, near-barren landscapes offering up a stark contrast to the majestically-layered architecture that sporadically populates it. Ang Lee has shown this kind of style and eye for beauty in almost all of his work - with mixed results - but this still probably marks the pinnacle of his career for many. It combined stunning, lighting fast yet elegantly enacted martial arts with a solid romantic story of forbidden love, youth, honour, betrayal and revenge, all set against a sumptuous, authentic period backdrop. It painted a tale for all ages, engaging as much with its words as its swords, captivating to the eye, and with a powerful and haunting cello-based score to boot.
With all that said, it did appear to split audiences somewhat. Many, many viewers loved it, allowing it to sail into Empire's Top 500 and IMDB's Top 250, and clearly defining it as an unparalleled success in terms of Asian movies profiting at the US Box Office. But those who did not love it hated it. Why? Well, quite simply, I think it's all in the wires. In Crouching Tiger, the concept was that the heroes and villains depicted were so skilled at their martial arts that they were capable of moving effortlessly, almost weightlessly, through the air. Jumping onto rooftops, skating across tree-tops, their movements probably not wholly different from what it would have been like had the fights been staged on the moon - i.e. defying all the laws of physics. With grace and elegance far beyond the simple frenetic body-blows and blocks that represented all we had previously seen in martial arts, it was a style of filmmaking that polarised audiences. Some could see the beauty and artistry behind it, able to suspend disbelief and almost have faith that there may indeed have been a day when people could move so skilfully and effortlessly (after all, if you were to show the free-running sequence from Casino Royale - or any other Parkour sequence for that matter - to audiences 50 years ago they probably would have thought that it was just a silly sped-up exaggerated 'special effect' and would have likely not believed it to be capable for a human being to perform such manoeuvres, yet nowadays we know that it is clearly humanly possible and it has almost become commonplace in action movies) whilst others refused to see the bigger picture and just found it too damn comical - after all, something resembling martial arts on the moon might well look comical, and all the wire-work was blatant (despite them being hard to spot) with its depiction of people running up walls and floating through the air (and sword-fighting on tree-tops). Out of the fans and the cynics, I fell into the former category, seduced by this, the first major global success for a Wuxia movie. And if you find it hard to suspend disbelief using the same methods I did, try to remember that it is the same basic concept that fuels all of Lucas' Star Wars tales, his Jedi themselves based on Bushido-fuelled Samurai, the loose Japanese equivalent to China's martial arts masters as seen in this movie - who have learnt how to channel their Qi in much the same way as Jedi 'use the force'. I don't really see why people complain about the antics in Crouching Tiger but are able to sit back and let go of all logic and reason whilst enjoying Star Wars. Would it help if the swords were replaced by lightsabres?
If you got as far as to embrace the 'art' part of the martial arts within this movie, you would have seen some Chinese superstars give arguably some of the best performances of their career. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh may have become household names amidst fans of John Woo's 'heroic bloodshed' movies and Jackie Chan-style kung fu adventures, respectively, but neither had really successfully broken through into Hollywood and Western audiences. Chow Yun-Fat had attempted such a transition in the late nineties with the mediocre Replacement Killers (heavy on the action, light on the plot) and the ambitious Corruptor (which is actually quite an underestimated little movie with decent action and story themes that would later be more popular in Training Day and The Shield) but his particular charisma and gun-toting flair was never fully accepted in its westernised format. It is a shame because the result was a severe lack of output from Mr Fat, during his prime years. Crouching Tiger showcased all sides to his capabilities - caring and thoughtful, emotional and insightful, charismatic and charming, stylish and professional and, above all, the epitome of cool. Considering he was mostly famous for twin-gun-play, his remarkably elegant martial arts skills with a sword come as something as a shock to most of his Western fans, as it is clear that he knows some seriously cool moves. His renowned warrior swordsman, Li Mu-Bai, is everything we would have wanted from Obi-Wan Kenobi in the recent Star Wars prequels, and arguably the best role Fat has had, even above and beyond his excellent super-cop Tequila in Woo's seminal actioner Hard Boiled. It is such a shame that his global success with Crouching Tiger has led nowhere. Apart from a stint in the lacklustre Bulletproof Monk, and a glorified cameo in the last Pirates' movie, he has done nothing that has made a mark on the radar. And I really hope he stops participating in stuff like the recent Dragonball movie and opts for something a little more substantial. Clearly his work in the Far East has been much more successful, even in global terms, and it is a great shame that he did not opt for a Crouching Tiger spin-off or prequel (the story was based on the fourth of five books in the Crane-Iron series) as this was clearly his best work. He did, however, participate in last year's enjoyable John Woo-helmed video game pseudo-sequel to Hard Boiled, Stranglehold, but I have no idea why they did not make it into a movie - for both their careers' sakes.
Michelle Yeoh has too suffered a rough ride in the West, being relegated to playing the annoyingly contrived love interest in the Brosnan-era Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, or smaller supporting roles which - again - have gone under the radar. How many people remember her efforts in Danny Boyle's amazing, oppressive Sunshine? It was one of the few English language roles which have showed off her true capabilities beyond that of a kick-ass martial artist. Still, since most people probably just want to see her kick like the female equivalent to Jackie Chan so I guess Bond and The Mummy 3 have provided at least that much for fans. Here in Crouching Tiger she too gets to show off a much quieter, more introspective form of her usual self, brimming with elegance and grace, both during her more intimate romantically charged scenes with Fat and also during her action-based set-pieces where her physical prowess is astounding. Again, it is a shame she has not had more success in the West off the back of this role, and even more of a pity that they did not bring her back along with Fat for any further adaptations in the series.
Aside from the two veterans who finally received some much-deserved recognition in the West, Crouching Tiger saw the birth of a new starlet, the young and striking Zhang Ziyi whose breakthrough role here as a mysterious young aristocratic bride-to-be within the estate where the sword gets stolen gives her the opportunity to be at once naive and innocent, sexy and forthright, as well as rebellious, capping her performance with some impressively choreographed martial arts - made yet more unusual by the fact that she was previously untrained and apparently taught the superb moves as an elaborate dance routine. Although she is much younger than the other two pivotal stars, she holds her own and has also subsequently tried her hand at a Hollywood transition (Rush Hour 2), though she too has yet to conquer the West. They are all three great performances, the dynamics of the relationships between these three characters integral to the movie, and visible in every scene together, whether during chats over tea, or over the clashing of swords.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon marked the birth of Wuxia movies in Hollywood and the West, becoming a massive hit and spawning many would-be successors and imitators alike. Personally, I think they got it just right here, obviously having the benefit of being unique to previously unfamiliar Western audiences, but also marking a perfection in terms of direction, sound design, martial arts action, romantic story arcs and multi-dimensional characterisation. Subsequent Wuxia films like House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower have not quite - in my opinion - lived up to expectations, although Jet Li's Hero was certainly the best of the contenders. Back in 2000, however, diversely talented Ang Lee gave us a true modern classic with this period fantasy tale of loyalty and honour, betrayal and revenge, kung fu and sword-fighting, romance and forbidden love, murder and mystery, and it is certainly one of those films that transcends the genre limitations and now languishes in must-see territory, a film for all ages and constitutions. Highly recommended.
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