Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #229
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun-Fat
I have to be upfront about this post. It's going to be ignorant. Not in a culturally insensitive way, I hope, but ignorant nonetheless. Until last night, I had never seen a Chinese movie. Now, I realize that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is actually an American-funded movie with a Taiwanese director shooting in Mandarin with a Chinese cast, but for our purposes, it's a Chinese movie. I mention that I've never seen one before because I'm sure Ang Lee made brilliant nods to the national cinema that flew way over my head throughout the movie. I mention it because while I know that the extended fight scenes were probably meant as a tribute to Hong Kong kung fu movies, I've never seen one, so I can't draw any comparisons. I mention it because where I saw a decent movie with a solid plot, some very cool fight scenes, and a few things that I frustratingly couldn't explain even within the context of the movie (Why can they fly?!), someone familiar with Chinese martial arts cinema probably saw a masterpiece.
At its heart, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is about a young girl, Jen, played by Zhang Ziyi, who is about to enter an arranged marriage but who longs for the freedom and adventure that Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh) enjoy. Unbeknown to them, Jen is a martial arts expert herself, thanks to her studies under the vengeful Jade Fox and her private study of the Wudan manual. Earlier in her life, she had been kidnapped by a desert bandit named Lo (Chang Chen), whom she fell in love with. He returns for her to rescue her from the arranged marriage, and the film ends with Jen reminding Lo of a story he once told her about a young man who dove from a cliff to make a wish come true, then jumping. But instead of falling, she floats/flies into the misty dawn. The cinematography of the scene is some of the most beautiful in the movie, which has consistently gorgeous cinematography as it is. From a plot perspective, this is a solid twist on the traditional woman-wanting-out-of-woman's-role period piece that empowers the female lead as a martial arts master and avoids some of the typical misogynistic pitfalls while plunging headfirst into others – why make Jen fall in love with her captor right while he's trying to rape her?
Still, I could only appreciate Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as much as someone who has never seen a Chinese movie before could. To say that I got everything I could out of it is like saying someone who has never seen an old B-movie can truly understand Grindhouse. It's just not true. If I knew where to start with the movies that clearly influenced Ang Lee when he set out to make this film, I would be able to appreciate it even more. As it stands, I thought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a gorgeously shot, endlessly entertaining treatise on gender roles and kung fu fighting under the Qing Dynasty in China. I liked it as much as I could be expected to.
The Good: The go-to answer here for most people is probably the choreography of the fight scenes, but I spent the first half of the movie asking myself why they could fly, and that frustrated me enough that I'm going to go with the cinematography instead.
The Bad: WHY COULD THEY FLY?!
The Skinny: It's not very high on the list, so I don't mind it being on. I can think of a lot of other movies I'd re-watch before I re-watch this, but I still liked it a lot.