Sunday, May 18th: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)


Cast and Crew: Ang Lee (Director), Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang.

What it’s About: Talented and impetuous aristocrat Yu Jen (Ziyi Zhang) is soon to see the end of her adventurous ways thanks to an impending arranged marriage. But when she steals Green Destiny, the sword of the famed martial arts hero Mu Bai Li (Yun-Fat Chow, Hardboiled), she is unwilling to settle for mere faux pas, and lashes out at anyone in her path, threatening life, limb, and honor. As Jen wildly asserts her independence, Li and his longtime comrade in arms, Shu Lien Yu (Michelle Yeoh, Wing Chun), attempt to reign her in while settling an old score with Jade Fox, a notorious witch-like adversary.

Why Watch it Today: Yun-Fat Chow, or Chow Yun-Fat, as he may be better known to Asian cinema fans, was born on this day in 1955. While rightly renown for his string of hyperviolent gun-fu spectacles directed by John Woo, Chow is a versatile actor with a knack for pulling off Hong Kong-sized melodrama in any genre. Ang Lee, a hit-or-miss auteur, is drawn toward projects with a strong undertow of longing and sorrow, and this project would have failed flat on its face without Chow to anchor the efforts. Teamed up with the veteran comedic actress Michelle Yeoh taking a more somber turn, the on-screen magic comes to life in a memorable kung fu love affair.

Crouching Tiger introduced western audiences to wire work in kung fu movies, something that had never really crossed over before successfully, despite notable antecedents (the 1967 classic Dragon Inn, for example). The wire work is appropriate for the fantasy/romance setting, and thanks to a healthy dollop of CGI, seemed to go down well with American boxoffice ($128m grossed in the US, according to IMBD; not bad for subtitles). Much can be speculated about what Ang Lee is actually saying in this movie, since the wuxia (Chinese fantasy romance) genre is traditionally rich in allegory. Is it about feminism? Modernity? Is Jen a stand-in for the Communist state, and Li  a representative of its Confucian/Taoist past? Part of the fun for the smoking-jacket crowd is in such speculations, and this film is chocked full of so much symbolism and bullshit that it’s hard not to feel arty and knowing after the credits roll.

And if that doesn’t get you going, Tiger packs portent, melodrama, over-the-top action, and Harlequin sex scenes involving glamorous beautiful people. Sounds guaranteed slam-dunk, even in the USA. Yet Ang Lee’s Hulk effort featured many of the same ingredients and totally bricked. Think about it for a moment. Then wish a very happy birthday to Yun-Fat Chow.

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