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There's a long-held belief that movie critics hate movies made for simple entertainment (especially action-adventure movies), while they fawn admiringly over anything with subtitles that presents itself as an "art" film. There's an element of truth to this: if Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had been made as an American action movie, it would have been brushed off as another action flick (albeit a well-made action flick), and it certainly would have not received the Oscar nomination for Best Picture. But Hollywood political games have long defied logic and reason, so I won't even bother contemplating the love that movie critics have for so-called "foreign films." Be that as it may, this movie is a beautifully done (if not very original) adventure that's certainly worth the price of a ticket.
A month or so ago, I took my Queen to see Jackie Chan's Legend of Drunken Master which is supposedly one of his greatest chop-socky movies. It was indeed a spectacle that dazzled the eye and made us all wonder, "How'd he do that?" With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I believe that we've now seen the best of both worlds in regards to Asian-produced adventure films.
Unlike Chan's heroic and death-defying stunts, the much-ballyhooed sword fights and chases in this movie stem from a plethora of special effects, editing, and actors using ropes and threads to make superhuman leaps over rooftops with the barest of efforts. It's obviously fake, but so what? We don't complain about the obviously fake rubber-suit alien monsters in a dozen Hollywood action movies; there's no reason to gripe about the methods used here. The action scenes -- indeed, the entire movie -- are carried along through sheer movement and kinetic energy. The warriors run up walls, skim along the surface of ponds like skipping stones, somersault up two and three stories of a building using moves that one normally sees in ballet, and clash with 400-year-old swords, the blades flashing through the air with such speed that they whistle like birds. It's a dazzling spectacle, a sight that will certainly contrast with the fight scenes we're used to, especially from the slow but steady flow of low-budget Hong Kong movies that we've seen in the country over the past thirty years or so. The contrast in style between Crouching Tiger and, say, Armour of God II -- not to mention that this movie doesn't have any cartoonish comic-relief characters -- is probably what has the critics praising this movie to high heaven. It's a wonderful adventure movie, I certainly agree. But it's not the next best thing since sliced bread.
The plot, in fact, is taken directly from the archetypes of storytelling that we find in mythology. In this movie, it's the story of a young warrior with supreme potential, who has to choose between the path of Light and the path of Darkness. (The Obi-Wan Kenobi figure in this movie even wears white and spends a life pursuing the path of chastity; whereas the villain dresses in black and uses dirty tricks, including shooting poisoned needles at her foes.) The story is based on a series of pulp fiction novels (which I haven't read) written in China in the first half of the 20th century, and the pulp influence is obvious from the images presented to us here: the dashing desert bandit who seduces the hot-headed wildflower; the mysterious stranger who effortlessly dispatches all of the crude thugs in town in one titanic battle at the local saloon; and the already-famous battle in the treetops, where the two rivals dance effortlessly across the tips of slender branches as if they were lighter and more graceful than birds.
(This scene in particular convinced me that the genius responsible for the fight choreography, Woo-Ping Yuen, has been heavily influenced by manga, anime, and mythology. He also did the fight scenes in the Matrix, and my first thought upon seeing the film was that it was live-action anime: the fight scenes are larger than life, and they use stunt work and moves that only exist in animated cartoons...and in manga. Crouching Tiger only reinforces this view, especially when the actors and actresses defy gravity and move through the streets and woods scene in the manner of such pop-culture icons as Lone Wolf and Cub and Ranma 1/2.)
This movie is being called "the Star Wars of martial-arts movies!" and there's some truth to that: it takes its roots from myth, folklore, fairy tales, and popular adventure movies. It's a wonder to behold. It's exciting, exhilarating, and breathtaking. It's also another example of how to take the movie cliches of old and bring them in a manner so that they are fresh and new once again. This, more than anything else, is Ang Lee's triumph.