The great thing about writing, talking, and reading about movies is that there are usually countless opinions and hundreds of things to notice and analyze in a single film. Every once in a while, however, I find a movie that everybody seems to love for the same reasons. This week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot, our dear Nathaniel has picked Ang Lee’s wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I feel like any praise I could give the film will sound like what people have said over and over again.
As far as the claim of this being a wuxia film created to cater to western audiences, I haven’t seen enough Hong Kong productions of the genre as to pronounce myself on either side of that debate. What I can say is that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands out among most action movies I’ve seen by infusing its fighting choreography with an unusual level of lyricism. One of the cliched things to say about the movie is that it treats action like a musical treats musical numbers. This might be a cliche, but it’s absolutely true. Long, great essays have been written under that premise, and they show how Lee and choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping use action as an extension of character. To fight, in the world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is to work through your emotional problems much like Broadway divas do once they start belting.
There are countless examples of the Oscar-winning cinematography by Peter Pau complementing the choreography in revealing the inner workings of the characters, but they obviously include lots of movement that cannot be captured in a single screen-grab, which is kind of the conceit for this whole “Best Shot” shenanigans. Lucky for us, the photography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not only outstanding because it’s so beautiful, but it uses color, lighting, and composition to reveal character just like the ethereal fighting sequences do.
There are two emotional centers to the movie: the repressed love between Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), and the battle over Jen (Ziyi Zhang) -the young aristocrat who wishes to escape her restrictive life and find her true identity. We are introduced to Jen as a virginal young woman waiting to be married, but she is quickly revealed to be a magnificent fighter capable to stand in battle against either of our master heroes.
The truth is Jen has had quite an exciting life for someone who was raised to be an aristocrat. She was trained in martial arts by the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), and she longs to be reunited with Lo (Chen Chang), the bandit she fought, and later fell in love with while stranded in the desert. She is a woman whose ever desire -be a martial artist, eloping with the man she loves- stand in opposition to the life that is planned for her.
That Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon focuses on the traditionally Chinese conflict between reason (li) and emotion (qing) is unsurprising, the way the movie expresses the conflict through images, however, is anything but. What’s more, in contrast to our Western ideals, the notion of one of these two elements being “good” and the other “bad” is far more unclear than you’d expect. Consider this moment, shortly after Jen has freed herself from Lo (who she believes to be her captor). The knocked-out Lo lies in shadow, while Jen and the horse she will use to escape is illuminated by the desert sun.
Is the light/dark dichotomy suggesting that Jen should run away from there? That reason tells her to go back to civilization, to escape and never look back on this desert bandit? Or does the shot reveal what’s going on through Jen’s head at that moment? Because she will collapse of thirst once she escapes, and will be saved by the very man she is trying to escape. At this point in Jen’s life, everything is light or dark, good or bad, right or wrong, it won’t be until after her adventure in the desert is over, that she will understand the nuances and complexities of her role as a woman, and the balancing act that comes with each of our life decisions.
Jen ends the movie by diving into an infinite fog, an abyss where vapor blurs the edges of everything it touches. She will embrace the nuance; she will accept the bargain. At the pivotal moment presented below, she is still in a rigid world. A simple world that can only be destroyed by life and adulthood.