Logline: Two warriors in pursuit of a stolen sword and a notorious fugitive are led to an impetuous, physically skilled, teenage nobleman’s daughter, who is at a crossroads in her life. (from imdb.com)
In my feeble quest to spread the love of all different types of cinema, I always instruct people to never, ever limit their genre choices. All the time I hear or read somebody say “I don’t watch [genre]” or “I hate [genre]” or “Why the hell would I watch that? It’s a [genre] movie.” I find it, in essence, a supremely dumb thing to say, as if all movies in a particular genre were the exact same no matter what their content, simply based on their broad label. All it tells me is the person making such dubious claims simply hasn’t seen the right movies in said genre. If you know me, this usually comes up when people say they simply hate either musicals or action movies (a weird pair with more similarities than one might think), to which I roll my eyes.
“Sorry. Either you just haven’t seen the right musical/action movie, or you’re currently incapable of putting yourself in a different state of mind necessary to enjoy as much as you can. What if I said ‘I don’t like comedy’ or ‘I don’t like drama’? How stupid does that sound/look? All you’re telling me is that you’re not willing to open yourself up, something I consider absolutely necessary to cinema love and appreciation.”
I do the same general spiel when somebody says they don’t like movies from a certain era, either people who refuse to watch anything in black-and-white (i.e. too many people) or those who do watch classic films but hate modern filmmaking (i.e. get over yourself). Or with people who don’t watch foreign cinema. You’re limiting how much you can enjoy life.
It’s all a part of my passive-aggressive campaign getting people to embrace the world of film, as art and as entertainment, and I am very aware that my general douchiness often has the opposite effect, turning people off of what I’m trying to say and making myself out to be a pretentious ass. I, too, need to get over myself. Honestly, though, I do it out of love.
I tell you this now because, after all of this explanation, I am quite aware that my movie-watching time often leaves out two very large genres of film — the western and the martial arts films. I don’t avoid them, not at all, but much of my knowledge of these two corners of cinema comes from watching the most well known and critically acclaimed selections from the genres as well as some reading and general pop culture knowledge. For the former, I know the post-modern westerns of the last 30 years pretty well and understand what they’re subverting/reinforcing, while also knowing that many modern action-thrillers (the entire Fast & Furious oeuvre, for example) are just westerns in modern times. And for the latter…well…I basically have that weird surge of Jackie Chan selections that started to cross over into the mainstream around middle school, what I saw in film school, the big ones that are recommended to me (please please recommend more) and whatever random piece of strange cinema you find late at night on some weird cult “let’s watch a movie from the 50s-60s-70s” deep-deep-into-the-abyss television show.
And I also have Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
In film school, I took a class called “Nintendo Narratives,” taught by a wonderful professor who put together movies influenced (either directly or indirectly) by comic books, video games and the like. When we got around to 1991’s Once Upon A Time In China, a classmate of mine (we worked together on a presentation in re: the Tekken series where I must readily admit he did much of the heavy lifting) said that this was basically the tops of the genre, that it put 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon completely to shame in every single way possible. The action in that wuxia melodrama couldn’t hold a candle to the action in Jet Li’s “greatest Chinese hero” tale, and the “love story [in CTHD] was silly” just got in the way. My love of CTHD was naïve.
And yet, I felt about OUATIC the same way I feel about many of the more serious-minded martial arts films I’ve seen — that they’re not full movies. Usually, it’s a series of incredible stuntwork (mind you, incredible incredible incredible) broken up by quiet, monosyllabic characters mumbling something about nobility. We have similar patterns with bad action movies in the United States, and if you simply transposed the foreignness of the martial arts films into an American action movie, I think you might be able to see its seams with more clarity. I need more from movies than action action action.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, more than ever, is where I and probably many other Americans can pinpoint my growing interest in martial arts films with substance, with emotion, with a story that’s more than just a clothesline for people smacking each other with swords and feet. What holds this film together isn’t the action — although all of the sequences still get my heart racing in the best way possible — but the stakes put upon the characters. Without the story of unrequited love between Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien, it wouldn’t come together. Without the great internal strife of Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu, paired with her own love story told mostly in flashback, I wouldn’t be able to relate to her. Even Jade Fox is a deeply felt character. There are no villains in this film, not technically, and I dig that. It’s more than just a martial arts movie; it’s also an incredible drama, a detective story, a soaring romance and a David Lean epic.
My wife tells me that this is because the film has had its elements westernized to a certain extent. That makes sense. Director Ang Lee is technically Taiwanese, but he studied film at NYU and generally makes American films, and his biggest collaborator is James Schamus, an American who studied at Berkeley and now both teaches at Columbia and heads up Focus Features. So this film is a fascinating combination of the way Americans see an action melodrama and how the Far East sees a martial arts epic. And in a lot of ways, I didn’t realize until re-watching the film yesterday that it’s perhaps more of a cultural mash-up (if I may use such a vulgar modern term) than even something like 1999’s The Matrix. And I think it may have unreasonably altered my expectations of the genre, disallowing me from appreciating more standard fare of martial arts films. It’s more unique than I ever expected.
Yes, there are plenty of martial arts melodrama detective love stories out there, but I haven’t seen one do it as well as this. It doesn’t suffer from an indulgent length (kept right under two hours), it treats its mysticism as a given instead of suffering through long-winded and ultimately pointless explanations, and instead of relying on cultural and/or genre shorthand, which is my biggest issue with many martial arts films, its characters are three-dimensional and fully realized. And goddamn is Wo Ping Yuen’s choreography (and the Oscar-winning cinematography, and the absolutely brilliant score) a beautiful thing to behold.
I also love how the movie fits into Ang Lee’s thematic throughline that has existed in pretty much all of his movies. I haven’t seen Pushing Hands, Ride With The Devil or Lust, Caution, but I’m sure I can assume, in some form, that they deal with the problems of hiding/suppressing one’s true self. (Wikipedia does a nice job in also mentioning “alienation, marginalization and repression.”) Watch this with Hulk. Or The Wedding Banquet. Or Brokeback Mountain. Or personal favorite The Ice Storm. The best directors have a throughline — at least, the ones I like do — and Lee has found a way to express these thoughts in nearly every genre you could think of, and each are strong in their own very specific way. I already respected him when 2000 rolled around, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon solidified it.
This is a masterpiece. And I still stand behind my decision, at the 2001 Academy Awards, to go against the popular thought and choose this in my Oscar pool as what would win Best Picture. Obviously, I was wrong, but not in my heart. NOT IN MY HEART!
So please, I really want to open myself up better to martial arts films. I know that one day I’ll deal with them, and there’s really no time like the present. Get them into my general rotation, and I’ll be eternally grateful.
- In March of 2009, I got to see Lee and Schamus talk to a packed house at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. They were there to discuss Taking Woodstock, The Ice Storm and CTHD, although time constraints stopped them after TIS. No matter, because their rapport is a pleasure to listen to, and this is never more apparent than on the CTHD commentary track, where they rib each other in a way I think many wouldn’t expect in talking about such a serious film. It starts with the following:
Schamus: Hey, this is interesting — [starting] a classic action movie with a five-minute dialogue sequence with two people talking to each other. That’s really really the classic way to start an action movie, Ang.
Lee: [It’s] because I have to sell a movie to the West. You have to establish this society…I kind of feel sorry for the Chinese audience who have to wait for 15 minutes before the action takes off.
- My other favorite commentary info from Schamus is about something I knew from the press when the film came out, that after his first pass at the script, people said that it was great from an American perspective, but the problem was that these characters simply wouldn’t talk that way. Finally, Schamus figured that a cultural parallel would be like if China had come in and made an episode of Law & Order, but when the judge comes into the courtroom he bows nine times.
- I’m not sure if the 20-minute flashback, which details the romance between Jen and Lo, works as well as I once thought. It’s written well and filled with wonderful landscapes, but it’s also just a pinch too broad for my tastes. It’s works in a classic melodrama kind of way, but the rest of the movie is better than that. (Compare it to the last moments between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien. No contest as to which works better.)
- It only cost $17 million? Today, that would be around $21 million. Hollywood extravagance just got pwned.