IMDB #205 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I bet you thought this was never coming back, didn't you? The countdown is resurrected with Ang Lee's epic wuxia international sensation, 2001's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Read on for spontaneous flying, a sword that can cut any other sword, fluffy romantic melodrama, poison darts, and reportedly terrible accents.

The Key Players:

Ang Lee is of course the Oscar winning director of snubbed masterpiece Brokeback Mountain (which is... NOT on the countdown! And Crash is?! Oh, humanity: will I ever regain faith in you?). You may also know him from The Ice Storm (like American Beauty before it went to art school and got annoying), the Emma Thompson Sense And Sensibility, and the 2003 flop Hulk, which I actually think is underrated in its insanity.

The story focuses on two couples. Chow Yun Fat (long famous to us Westerners for The Replacement Killers) and Michelle Yeoh (she was in one of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies! Remember that?) play the elder, stately couple that's never admitted their feelings because they're too busy being warriors and all.

Zhang Ziyi broke through in her role here and went on to Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, as well as a Golden Globe nominated turn in Memoirs Of A Geisha. Chen Chang (2046) joins her as the other half of the young, passionate but annoying couple.

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The Story:

Yun-Fat plays a renowned swordsman going through a crisis, so he sends longtime friend Yeoh to give his sword to a mutual friend in Peking. Yeoh used to be engaged to Yun-Fat's "brother by oath," before he died in battle, so they both feel it would be dishonorable to be with one another. Tear.

Yeoh delivers the sword and meets Zhang, the due-to-be-married daugher of a governer. That night Zhang, dressed in all-black ninja gear, fights of Yeoh and steals the sword (which is called "The Green Destiny sword," by the way- everytime they said it I just wondered "how can a destiny be 'green'?").

Yun-Fat arrives in town, and learns of not only the theft but the rumored presence of Jade Fox, the woman who killed his master to steal the secrets of their martial arts! She's been hiding out as Zhang's governess for the last ten years, training her to be all ninja-y. In a confrontation between all four of them that night, Jade Fox kills an undercover policeman and escapes, while Yun-Fat is intrigued by Zhang's clear potential and offers to train her.

Then suddenly some dude shows up (Chang), and we get to see a long flashback of how he and Zhang met in the desert and fell in love. He's a desert bandit, and would never be accepted by her parents. So she sends him away, he retreats to a mountain on Yun-Fat's advice, she gets married and then runs away anyway (and steals the damn sword again!

Will these two pairs of star crossed lovers ever get it right? Lots of sword-fights and clunky dialogue ensue.

The Artistry:

I like Lee as much as the next guy, but this is really Yuen Wo Ping's film: he's the fight choreographer most famous (here) for The Matrix and Kill Bill films, and all of the memorable scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon involve flying limbs and twanging swords.

Then there's the nature of wuxia stories themselves- I remember seeing this for the first time and being like "Why are they randomly flying around like that? Is this ever going to be addressed?" and my friend Dan saying "It's part of the culture. Shh!" This also extends to paralyzing people using acupuncture points, and using inner energies to heal wounds and such (though not poison. More on this later). It leads to some fun setpieces like an early chase over the rooftops, and a swordfight perched on thin tree-branches.

On the acting: it was good? I'm never really sure how to penetrate the language barrier, especially when it's an Asian langauge that doesn't really translate word-for-word at all (my limited knowledge of Spanish gives me a minor leg-up for movies in the Romance languages. At least I can hear which word they're emphasizing).

So the verdict on that's not mine to render, though I will say the chemistry between Yun-Fat and Yeoh was doing laps around that of Zhang and Chang, and they didn't even get to make out and all. At the time, my friend Steve He did tell me that everyone's Mandarin accents were different and dodgy (especially the non-native speakers Yun-Fat and Yeoh), but clearly that didn't affect my experience.

And I'm not sure if it's a factor of the translation of the subtitles or the source material, but the dialogue rarely did it for me. Examples:

"I'm getting married soon, but I haven't lived the life I want." (hold up- what's the subtext here?)

-Zhang: So you're still that little boy looking for shooting stars."
-Chang: And now I've found the brightest star of all."

It was pretty much just all on the nose. It made it hard to engage with the characters/love stories, and thus hard to really root for anyone in any given fight.

In fact, my favorite is probably the big Yeoh/Zhang showdown in the second half, mostly because Yeoh is furious at Zhang for being a spoiled brat and I'm totally with her. To that point Zhang's character has stolen a priceless and revered sword twice, rejected Chang when he came back for her, then run away anyway and beaten up an entire platoon of local fighters for no real reason. And to top it off... we'll, let's go behind the spoiler wall.


Yun-Fat tracks Zhang down and offers to train her, again, but she throws the offer back in his face, again. He throws the Green Destiny sword into the river, but she dives in to get it, and is saves by Jade Fox, who has escaped some time ago from Peking.

Yeoh had been tracking Jade Fox, and she and Yun-Fat arrive at her hideout just in time to get thousands of poison-tipped darts fired at them- fortunately in these movies you can just deflect those with your sword by moving it really fast, and Yun-Fat kills Jade Fox, avenging his master. But wait- dun dun dun! he's got one of the poisoned darts in the neck, and will die soon.

Zhang, finally remorseful at the trouble on her account (eyeroll), rides back to town to have the antidote made, but returns too late- in the meantime Yeoh has watched Yun-Fat die, but not before dramatically swearing his love.

Aw. Zhang goes to Chang in the mountains for one last night. In the morning she asks him to make a wish, and he wishes they'll always be together. The she jumps off the cliff!

Now, Chang had told an earlier legend claiming that jumping off the mountain will grant you dearest wish. And then "Long ago, a young man's parents were ill, so he jumped. He didn't die. He wasn't even hurt. He floated away, far away, never to return. He knew his wish had come true."

So does this mean Zhang floats away, never to return...and they'll be together for ever? It's not very clear, and the general ability of everyone to sort-of fly makes even less so.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

A little lower, I'd say- it wouldn't make my top 250, and mind you plenty of subtitled films would. I just wasn't into the saga, and didn't jibe with the resolution- as much fun as some of the action was, I couldn't really get behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001, and it hasn't grown on me.

The Legacy:

It's the most succesful foreign film in the U.S. in history, grossing $128 million on our soil and winning four Oscars (including Art Direction, Cinematography, and Score).

It lead to the heavy U.S. marketing of Zhang Yimou's Hero (which grossed $53 million) and House Of Flying Daggers (which grossed $11 million, and ended the trend).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Yeoh. Zhang. Green Destiny sword. A half-dozen other weapons.

Leftover Thoughts:

-I know this is an old complaint, but I was dissappointed to find only figurative tigers and dragons.

-Check out that awful trailer up there, which relies on Trailer Voice Guy instead of lousy old subtitles. "And a Princess....Destined....To Become....A Warrior!"

-Next updates will be soonish, but I'm not scheduling specific dates anymore.

Coming Up...

204. Little Miss Sunshine

203. Rope

202. Duck Soup

2 Response to "IMDB #205 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

  1. Cody-B says:

    House Of Flying Daggers in my opinion was a lot better with all the problems you stated. I for one couldn't stand Crouching tiger. The whole flying thing was just too cartoony for me.

    I found the flying daggers in House a bit cartoony- I expected to hear screeching brake sound effects when they abruptly changed direction in mid-air.

    Otherwise, yeah, solid film. I also like Hero with it's Rashomon-style differing flashbacks.

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