Thursday, August 20, 2009

“My name is Li Mu Bai. The Green Destiny is mine.”

I wasn’t joking when I said 2000 was a good year for Oscar bait that I’d go for. Ang Lee’s Wo hu cang long (hereafter referred to as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for simplicity’s sake) is a period drama that involves swords, revenge, death and love, and squared off against Gladiator at the Academy Awards.

Based on the fourth book of a five novel cycle, the movie is about a teenage girl on the cusp of her arranged marriage who would rather be independent and run away. To that end, she steals a famous sword from a famous swordsman and causes nocturnal mischief under the aegis of her mentor, a man-hating criminal. The warrior and his almost-but-not-quite lover set out to reclaim the sword. Quite a bit of DRAMA combined with ADVENTURE! follows for the next 120 minutes.

Jen Yu: Zhang Ziyi in her breakout role as the rebellious noblewoman. She’s at the center of the story, and brings quite a bit sympathy for a character that is ultimately a spoiled, rich bitch who doesn’t think things through leading to bloody consequences. But there’s a reason for her anger. She’s a character that is stifling in a rigid society that demands proper behavior at all times from people at all social stations. But it doesn’t excuse her actions in the least, and several people die because of her.

Master Li Mu Bai: Chow Yun Fat plays a veteran warrior of great repute who is trying to retire from his lifestyle and settle down to a life of quiet contemplation in a temple. As a gesture of this retirement, he makes a gift of his great sword, the Green Destiny to a local official/friend of his named Sir Te. The sword has a habit of being stolen that irks him, and the sudden appearance in the town of a woman named Jade Fox keeps him from hanging up his sword for good. Li Mu Bai has a quiet dignity and strength that’s just plain badass, especially when he starts fighting. There is, however, more to him that it seems. There are hints that the contemplative life of a monastery doesn’t have the answers or serenity that he seeks, and his longtime friend and partner, Yu Shu Lien, is revealed to be one of the most important things in his life. Speaking of which…

Yu Shu Lien: Michelle Yeoh plays Li Mu Bai’s friend and love interest. Her father established a “security firm” and she eventually inherited the business of professional ass-beating. Her friendship with Li Mu Bai goes way back, but due to societal constraints and personal hesitations, neither acted on their feelings for each other in the past. She becomes a close friend of Jen Yu’s during the film, bonding like sisters, and she tries to steer the young girl along a path that is more moderated than the one Jade Fox offers. A stoic, mature warrior woman, she conveys phenomenal volumes of depth and sympathy with subtle facial expressions and movements. For being both a smart and capable warrior, businesswoman and general fascinating character, she takes my nod as Badass of the Film (though Li Mu Bai is easily a hair’s breadth away from being it).

Lo “Dark Cloud”: A wild bandit leader who met Jen Yu when he raided her caravan and stole her comb. She took offense to that and gave chase, and the two had a whirlwind romance. That’s revealed in a flashback. Lo comes to the city to find her and take her away from the repressive courtly life, but in a lot of ways, only makes more trouble for everyone when he shows up. He’s a wildly audacious free spirit of a character, and his open, honest love for Jen Yu is a great contrast to the severe restraint of everybody else.

Jade Fox: Cheng Pei-Pei plays a bitter, angry woman who acts as Jen Yu’s maid/servant, but is also tutoring her in the ways of combat. She infiltrated a monastery once and murdered Li Mu Bai’s master after observing the school’s combat techniques and sleeping with him. She hates men in general, largely because they keep women down in society, but she’s also pretty psychopathic as far as mentors go.

There are a few other important characters, like Sir Te who I mentioned already and a police inspector/officer who’s in it quite a bit. He’s trying to track down the stolen sword and bring in Jade Fox as well, but he’s there mostly to get his ass kicked.

Pretty. That’s the first impression. Ang Lee’s eye for Dramatic storytelling and setting the mood are great in this film. Colors are lush and the second act is defined by desert browns and the third by forest greens. Its very nicely done.

Of course, being a martial arts film in the Wuxia tradition, there’s plenty of fightin’ to see, and they’re easy on the eyes. The three that particularly stand out to me are the fight in the tea house where Jen Yu tears up a restaurant fighting a bunch of goons who only wanted a friendly sparring match, the incredible duel with Yu Shu Lien in the “dojo” and the iconic fight between Jen and Li Mu Bai in the trees. Extensive wire work was used to make all the leaping and soaring and standing on thin tree branches possible, which was amazing at the time, but it has aged a little bit. Not so much that it breaks suspension of disbelief, but if you’re jaded, the treetop fight really stretches it. Just roll with it.

Du Lu Wang wrote the book and I know nothing about the series it belongs to. Hiu-Ling Wang, James Schamus & Kuo Jung Tsai handled the script adaptation. And there are some interesting contrasts with Gladiator. First, its written in Mandarin Chinese, but second, the pacing is more drawn out as the characters backstories and connections are slowly revealed. It’s a more sophisticated method that adds layers of depth to the characters in a very good way. The plot itself delves very heavily into the Romance genre (classical Romance, not modern kissy-face romance) and despite being about only a few characters, feels very epic in scope.

Composer Tan Dun & Yo Yo Ma worked together on creating the sound for the movie, and its not what you’d expect of an ADVENTURE! score. Most of the themes are haunting cello work, and the action scenes go heavily into percussion. Overall, its very restrained, moody with elements of passion bubbling under the surface and totally appropriate to what’s on screen.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent, excellent film. Beautifully shot with compelling characters and story with haunting music, the movie does fire on all cylinders. It was also something of a gateway drug into the realm period martial arts films from Hong Kong.

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