I decided to rewatch this because I watched Patrick H. Willems’ video about the film and why it’s great. I also remembered Ang Lee’s introduction to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring on the Criterion Collection’s release where he talked about the movie’s great influence on him. As I watched the film again, I had things both said and some of my own Bergman thoughts floating around in my head. Willems talked about how Ang Lee characters are usually repressed and refuse to say what they mean (it was clear the second he said it), and Lee talked about how much of an influence Bergman was on his work. I was particularly thinking of my own observation that Bergman’s characters often lie to each other and to themselves, and it fit rather well. The characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are often masking what they want from themselves and from the world around them.
Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are long time associates who both obviously love each other romantically, however they are separated by a societal convention that says that they cannot be together because Lien was engaged to Bai’s brother who died decades before. Jen Yu is the daughter of a regional governor and betrothed to some bureaucrat, but she harbors memories of her weeks in the wilderness with an outlaw, Dark Cloud, and has kept secret her martial arts training with Jade Fox, a murderer hiding in Governor Yu’s household as Jen’s governess. Jen has another level to her deceptions in that her training with Jade Fox is based on a martial arts manual she stole from Li Mu Bai’s order but couldn’t read herself, which Jen did, only providing a cursory education to her own master.
The element that ties all of these characters together is the Green Destiny, a magical sword that Li Mu Bai gives to Lien, assuring himself that he’s leaving the life of a fighter behind after meditation took him to a place his master had not prepared him for. Jen, having grown up on stories of the fighters, in particular and specifically around both Bai and Lien themselves, is enamored with the sword and decided to simply steal it. That event ignites the adventure that follows.
Now, to talk about the action. I adore the action in this film, and it’s for several reasons. The first is how Lee films it. The action is largely filmed from afar, in wide shots, with more than enough room to see the performers going through the complex moves. Those shots are intercut with inserts of some closer action, but the action overall is driven by those long shots that allow the action to play out in clear terms for the audience, never trying to paper over poor performances with quick cuts. The other major reason is the use of wires. Now, I don’t love wirework whenever it comes along, but I love it here. That has a lot to do with the overall tone of the film.
Wirework in action implies something otherworldly. That can be explained through stuff like magic, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes it in a more interesting direction. There’s an ethereal feeling to the whole affair that lends itself to the wirework in the action sequences. It’s not like the movie ends up feeling like something else entirely when it switches from people talking to people swinging swords at each other. The talk around repressed emotions makes characters seem like they’re never quite connected to the real world around them. They are inherently otherworldly in that way, so the flying fits how they interact with each other. These are people who are more concerned with larger ideals like the fathomless fear of reaching a place in meditation they hadn’t expected, duty over passion, and questions of freedom against obligation.
However, that’s not to say that there are no baser concerns, they’re just hidden below the surface. Bai wants to kill Jade Fox because she stole the martial arts manual but also for revenge. Lien and Bai keep coming together out of duty and because they love each other.
Aside from the action, the movie is a sumptuous treat. From Bai and Jen standing on the top of bamboo trees to the simple, economical, and classic way scenes of people talking to each other to the beautiful colors of every scene, the movie is simply a joy to look at.
Exciting, beautiful, touching, and intelligent, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a great film told with tenderness and verve all at once.