Main cast: Chow Yun-Fat (Li Mu Bai), Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu Lien), Zhang Ziyi (Jen), Chang Chen (Dark Cloud), and Cheng Pei-pei (Jade Fox)
Director: Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an old Chinese proverb that means “what you see isn’t what you always get”. Indeed, Ang Lee’s first Chinese movie since Eat Man, Drink Woman is actually a strong drama underneath the swordfight genre surface.
And unlike many of the movies in this genre, this one is unique in that it has very strong female characters. Indeed, it is Jen and Shu Lien who carry the story. Based on Wang Du Lu’s book (or to be exact, chapter four of the book), this movie tells the story of Mu Bai, a retired swords and martial art expert, entrusting his friend and secret love Shu Lien with his sword, Green Destiny. She will deliver it to Mu Bai’s old friend in Beijing.
However, in Beijing, Shu Lien meets Jen, a wealthy officer’s daughter who is increasingly chafing at her lot. She loves a bandit with whom she had an affair with in a daring escapade, but now she is to be married to a man she has never met. In Shu Lien, she sees another life where a woman can be free and roam the world for adventures.
Jen is tutored secretly in martial arts by Red Fox, Mu Bai’s nemesis. When Jen steals Green Destiny, it sets in motion a chain of events that can only end in disaster.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is essentially Jen’s story. Not that Jen is heroic in nature. She is in turns selfish, kind, brutal, and charitable, but all in all, she is a woman whose breakdown is a result of all her pent-up frustrations at her lot in life. Shu Lien also is a woman who is torn by her feelings between Mu Bai and honoring her late fiance’s memory, the latter saved Mu Bai from death. Mu Bai and she love each other, but both couldn’t reveal their feelings in the name of duty and loyalty. It is a tragic story, their love.
The unique thing about this movie is its feminist viewpoint, rare indeed in the male-dominated swordfight genre. Eventually Mu Bai laments that in his dedication to battle and bloodshed, he has lost what matters the most to him – Shu Lien. His final declaration of love to her has me weeping. Likewise, Jen is at times unsympathetic, but she is a very real character. She just wants an adventure, but her life is such that her rebellion can only bring about tragic consequences.
Ang Lee is a character director first, martial arts movie director second, and it shows. While the dazzling swordplay and rooftop chases are impressive – the final confrontation between Mu Bai and Jen among high bamboo trees, and the dazzling battle between Jen and Shu Lien, for instance – the quiet moments shine most. I sigh when Mu Bai shyly places his hand over Shu Lien’s. Or when Jen mocks the pretentious swords experts she encounters, I have a great laugh. Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi imbue in their roles great depths and mesmerizing emotions.
And the ending is just dazzling in its simple poeticism.
However, as much as I love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I must admit that Chow Yun-Fat’s one-note Mu Bai is quite disappointing. I expected more range from him. Likewise, Chang Chen playing Jen’s bandit lover is ridiculously wimpy and uncharismatic. Jen’s attraction to him falls flat and doesn’t ring true. Small flaws, if they were not pivotal roles that bring about Jen and Shu Lien’s emotional growths.
Still, it’s a great movie.