Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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Bob Smithouser

Movie Review

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opens with decorated warrior Li Mu Bai deciding that it’s time to hang up his sword. Not just any sword, mind you, but the legendary Green Destiny, a 400-year-old weapon that’s the Far-East equivalent of Excalibur. Li Mu Bai entrusts his Ginsu-sharp blade to Shu Lien, the promised bride of his deceased brother (the two share an unspoken attraction, but forbid themselves to act upon it so as not to dishonor the dead man’s memory). Once in Peking, Green Destiny is stolen by a masked martial artist who nimbly scales walls and skips across rooftops like Peter Pan. Battles over the custody of Green Destiny are fast-paced, stylized kung-fu exhibitions that defy the laws of physics.

Along the way, Shu Lien befriends Jen, a teenager promised in marriage to a man she doesn’t love (a flashback reveals that Jen’s real main squeeze is Lo, a thieving thug who ambushes rich folk cameling through the desert). Meanwhile, Li Mu Bai has second thoughts about forsaking his violent past, at least until he avenges the death of his master at the hands of the evil Jade Fox. So when this elusive Fox makes the scene in connection with the stolen sword, hold onto your wontons! Identities and loyalties soon become clearer and the battle lines are drawn (using very nice calligraphy). Li Mu Bai realizes that Jen has a special gift that demands his tutelage. But will she become his disciple or be swayed by Jade? Who has the girl’s best interests at heart anyway? This critically acclaimed martial arts tale from Taiwan (with English subtitles) has a distinctly feminine core, focusing most of its attention on the relationships of its women. Blades clank. Fists blur. Emotions are shared. It’s Bruce Lee meets The Joy Luck Club.

positive elements: The film esteems nobility, discipline and honor within the Asian culture. Friends put themselves at risk to protect one another. Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien struggle to reconcile matters of the heart with the social/moral propriety demanded of them, and do so with integrity. Li Mu Bai attempts to turn his back on a violent past. There’s a lesson in Lo’s admission that he runs with a horde of thieves because, “Slowly your gang becomes your family.” When Jen romanticizes the nomadic power of Giang Hu warriors, Shu Lien reminds her of the need for rules, integrity, friendship and trust. Acting like Peking’s version of Obi Wan Kenobi, Li Mu Bai selflessly offers his services to train a disciple in the ways of an exclusive, spiritually based fighting force.

spiritual content: There is talk of meditation and prayer, as well as readying oneself for the afterlife, though the film’s worldview is obviously not Christian. On two occasions, Li Mu Bai asserts that everything is just a state of mind (the second time, Shu Lien points out that all is not illusion). Eastern religion is the only faith represented.

sexual content: Premarital sex gets romanticized as Jen and Lo are shown in the throes of passion and conversing in the afterglow on several occasions.

violent content: Intensely choreographed swordplay and hand-to-hand combat, while relatively bloodless, includes fatalities and introduces an arsenal of diverse weaponry. A large circular blade is imbedded in a man’s forehead. A warrior is killed by a poison dart. One girl apparently commits suicide by leaping from a bridge. A shrewish woman attacks a foe who kills her in self-defense. In a flashback, Jen’s family caravan falls under siege in the desert when a band of marauders converges on it (she and the leader, Lo, are viciously antagonistic until their fighting rage turns into sexual passion).

crude or profane language: A young woman is maliciously called a whore.

drug and alcohol content: Jade Fox burns an intoxicating incense to drug Jen.

conclusion: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set a record in 2001 for Oscar nominations by a foreign film. Its 10 Academy nods, arriving in the wake of Golden Globe wins for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film, have caused moviegoers in the United States to take notice (it is on pace to gross $100 million during its U.S. run). The Presidents’ Day matinee I attended was quite full—mainly of art loving baby boomers. One might naturally assume that an Asian release without a single word of English (unless you count “Aiyaaaaaah!!!!”) wouldn’t appeal to teenagers. But there may be pockets of adolescent interest. The character who becomes the film’s focal point is an angst-ridden 18-year-old, a self-trained Ninja bound by matronly honor and parental authority who longs for romance and adventure. She’s Mulan with an attitude. Also, the fight sequences play out like a live-action video game. Think Mortal Kombat on the big screen enhanced by the mid-air choreography and production value of The Matrix. Visually engaging stuff.

However, unlike many mainstream critics who have gushed over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I found the gravity-defying chases across rooftops and lemur-like leaps through treetops an illogical distraction. Artful, yes. Perhaps even standard fare in the martial arts genre. Still, they felt to this Westerner rather cartoonish and out of place in a film that, creatively, wants to be taken seriously. There are tragic elements here sure to leave audiences less than effervescent as they drop their popcorn bags into awaiting trash receptacles. Ultimately it is the nobility of Shu Lien and the budding pacifism of Li Mu Bai that makes them easy to root for. Other characters may give Crouching Tiger its roar, but they provide its heart.

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Bob Smithouser