Martial arts films had been big business in China for decades, but they never really caught on in a big way overseas until relatively recently. The Matrix drew a great deal of influence from the style of Hong Kong action cinema, and proved fairly conclusively that there was a market for these sorts of films in English speaking countries; and so a new wave of martial arts epics targeted at the foreign market was produced to capitalise on their new-found mainstream appeal. The first, and one of the best, of these was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
A period piece set in historical China, it tells the story of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat), a famous swordsman, nursing a secret love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who wants to give up fighting in favour of a quiet life. Unfortunately for him, the arrival of Jen (Zhang Ziyi) and the subsequent theft of his sword, Green Destiny, forces him back into the warrior lifestyle, and prompts him to finally try and track down his master’s murderer, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei).
One area where the film is particularly strong, especially when compared to similar films like House of Flying Daggers, is in its plot and characters. They never feel like mere window dressing for the fight scenes like they do in so many martial arts films; if you’re willing to look beyond all the punching and kicking, there are a pair of thoroughly convincing and genuinely moving love stories being told here. It would probably work very well as a date movie. Make sure you watch it with subtitles, though: it’s much easier to appreciate the quality of the actors that way, not least because the dubbing on the DVD is absolutely atrocious. Crouching Tiger is a brilliant film, but the dubbed version is practically unwatchable.
All the same, what will likely stand out for most people is how spectacular it looks and sounds. The costumes and set design are all gorgeous, and the score by Tan Dun does a great job establishing the heroic, almost fantastical nature of the setting. But naturally, the main draw here is the fight scenes, and Yueng Woo-Ping, fresh off his success choreographing The Matrix, really outdoes himself. Some of the things the characters can do may take some getting used to for those unfamiliar with the genre: they can easily leap from floor to roof without so much as a run up; can climb trees that ought not to be able to support the weight of a squirrel; and, in a couple of instances, run on the surface of water. Suspension of disbelief is obviously necessary, but the speed and agility of the characters and actors is something to behold all the same. One particularly great fight sequence involves one character wielding the indestructible Green Destiny sword, and the other using an entire armoury’s worth of weapons, which keep being destroyed by the sword, to try and fight back.
As an introduction to martial arts cinema, it would be hard to find a better film than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It may not be as ridiculously gorgeous as Zhang Yimou’s Hero, but it strikes a perfect balance between action and character which means there’s something for everyone to like here: fans of action will more than get their fix, but those who are more in it for the story will be satisfied as well. It’s a great middle ground between blockbuster and art house, and the only real fault with it is the dubbing on the DVD.