Emotion in Motion

With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee reinvents the martial arts movie for the art-house crowd

The ways in which Lee's film deviates from standard Chinese action film practice may be a simple case of his particular concerns and personality, but it also may have to do with the models he's operating from. He has gone on record about how it was the martial arts films of his Taiwanese childhood that made him fall in love with cinema, and those films are from an earlier era. In particular, he is emulating King Hu, the first Chinese director to achieve critical recognition in the rest of the world; his influence can be seen throughout Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Hu, it must be added, died in 1997 in Pasadena, where he had lived for several years, while attempting unsuccessfully to get American funding for some long-cherished projects.)

Three particular elements of Hu's work are strongly reflected in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He incorporated the dance and acrobatic moves of Chinese opera (as well as elements of Sergio Leone's spaghetti-western style) into a previously stiff style. He also recognized that the camera could dance as well, combining traditionally stylized staging with sweeping camera movement and ingenious cutting. And he gave women equal or superior standing in the world of action. (As a sign of blatant homage to Hu, Lee uses actress Cheng Pei Pei--who starred in Hu's breakthrough 1965 hit Come Drink With Me--in a major part in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) With the exception of anomalies like The Long Kiss Goodnight, Hollywood, 30 years later, has yet to catch up with Hu on the issue of women.

It is ironic that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--which, in a poor field of competitors, is shaping up as one of the year's best films--may well be least enthusiastically received among diehard fans of its genre. What appears striking and new to most audiences is likely to be less riveting to those who have loved this form of cinema for years...and who may feel peevish that it's taken a relative interloper from the art houses to bring its glories to broader attention. "We've been trying to turn you on to this stuff for years!" they might justifiably cry. "And you wouldn't listen! And now you're giving all the credit to Ang Lee, who is largely recycling standard elements of the genre! What about Ronny Yu's 1992 masterpiece The Bride With White Hair, of which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a decent facsimile?"

Zhang Ziyi prepares to cook these hard-working men a fine meal, as a woman should. OW! She's chopping me! It was a joke! Help...
Zhang Ziyi prepares to cook these hard-working men a fine meal, as a woman should. OW! She's chopping me! It was a joke! Help...

In truth, if longtime fans try to look objectively at Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they will see a first-rate entry in the field, worthy of comparison to its forebears. And they should welcome anything that brings attention to their beloved genre. Meanwhile, the rest of you should go see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And, assuming you like what you see, should go out and rent The Bride With White Hair already.

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