Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here. I posted a review yesterday for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON that advised readers to temper their expectations. Now another reader has written in to challenge that perception and say that there's no way we can aim too high in our expectations. Sounds like whatever we see is going to be worth talking about.
I've been following your web-page updates on a daily basis since eons.... Living in South East Asia, ie Singapore the controversial island state, I was never in a position to contribute until now. Most films would be previewed in the West until Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came along.
I have heard about the show's 15 minutes standing ovation, the rave reviews by tough critics from Variety, Times, etc and I waited in quiet anticipation. I must admit to being quite hyped up with anticipation but I tried not to find out anything about the story at all. About 3-4 weeks ago, my patience was rewarded and the show rolled into town.
I bought up one whole row of 15 seats for my colleagues, friends, family and the age range from early 20s to mid 50s (my mum). The night before the show, I drove all round Singapore to deliver the tickets so that no one would be able to delay me by being late for the show; such was my anxiety!
Now, a few of us came from Chinese schools; ie Chinese was taught as a first language and memorising Chinese poetry, idiom, etc were the norm. Naturally, we were very familiar with the volumes of martial art novels and I devoured them passionately during my teens. They were highly addictive and the best was this guy called Jin Yong whose works have been dissected by innumerable academias and modern Chinese literature writers. There were also hours of martial art movies and drama series which stretched into 100s of hour-long episodes which we were weened on. And be it the early 70s one-armed swordsman or Jackie Chan monkeying around with his drunken fist up to Jet Li ushering in a new era of cool with his Wong Fei Hong movies, oh yes, we were all there, soaking it up, lapping it up and wallowing in it.... Then this Crouching Tiger movie comes along.......
Now, I don't know what your other reviewers were expecting but my anticipation was geared to high anxiety and my confidence in an unseen movie resulted in this 15 seat attendance. I am proud to tell you that the show did NOT disappoint - not for a single one of us.
The story is simple but the characters are complex. It started off with Li Mubai (Chow Yun Fatt's character) expressing his wish to retire from the martial arts world and asking Michelle Yeoh's character Shu Lian to deliver his sword to their benefactor in Peking for safekeeping. Now, the sword is at least 400 years old, beautifully crafted but most importantly, light as a feather (I exaggerate a little) and the sharpest known instrument. (This recalls Jin Yong's classic novel of Heavenly Sword & Dragon Sabre - whereby the entire martial arts world was thrown into chaos for the sake of possessing either of these 2 weapons). And then things get complicated.
The sword was delivered but stolen the very same night, probably by the magistrate's daughter, Jen - a pale, fragile-looking young girl, ie the quintessential Chinese doll but armed with an iron will and a don't-f***-with-me attitude underneath it all. That scene when the sword was stolen and Michelle Yeoh gave chase across the moon-lit roofs of Beijing - BEAUTIFUL. It was a piece of moving art which was exciting at the same time. You see both the pursuer and the pursued making their way from one end of the screen to the other, scene after scene after scene, seen from the street below, from a helicopter view on top, my God! I actually felt my heart rate picked up and the sheer beauty and grace of movement of this 2 characters - astounding! And the scene when Michelle Yeoh managed to ground the thief and KEEP her on the ground by hitting her knee, feet, pulling her belt everytime she wanted to jump away - I have NEVER seen better. This scene totally floored me and despite the slow first 10 minutes, I was seriously hooked!
The story developed from there as Michelle Yeoh tried to retrieve the sword discreetly without embarrassing Jen nor her magistrate family. Jen had taken quite a shine to M Yeoh as she lived a somewhat cloistered life and had romantic notions about living in the tempetuous martial arts world which M Yeoh seemed to personify. Thrown into the mix is Jen's governess who had her own sinister motives for teaching Jen martial arts and who turned out to be the killer of Li Mubai's master. All this you will know within the first half an hour.
One can count the number of fighting scenes in uh, TWO hands. But if you are going in purely for that, I'm very sorry for you. Despite saying that, the fight scenes ARE revolutionary as NO show delivers a pursuit scene like the one above and the Bamboo grove fight scene. Towards the end of the show, Jen is pursued by Li Mubai who wants his sword back. She ran into the bamboo forest and poetry in motion was born again. Up and down, in and out, until both of them rest on the ends of two bamboo branches high up in the air. Li Mubai swayed with the gently swaying branch, personifying the type of "qing gong" (- the ability to lighten oneself to leap and run higher and faster) that we drool about in the martial arts novel. The ultimate in print-to-screen translation! This is not counting the kick-ass fight scene between Jen and M Yeoh who went thru a whole arsenal of weapons to counter the stolen deadly sharp sword that Jen wielded. The actress Zhang Ziyi portraying Jen has a ballet & dance background which put her in good steed with the strong yet graceful movement of M Yeoh's kicks and punches. And the MUSIC! For every fight scene, there is a piece of accompanying music that compliments the fight PAR EXCELLENT! The thumping drum beat of the flight across the roof tops of Beijing, the etheral & dreamy music of the Bamboo grove scene, the light & airy flute piece of Jen demolishing a tea-house, the cymbal and base of the multiple weapon fight between Jen & M Yeoh - perfect marriage of sight and sound! Yo Yo Ma delivers with his cello for the sadder moments and yes, the show is an aural feast as well.
I have no idea why this show should receive a review backlash on your website. It is a perfect amalgation of art and martial arts movie. It is groundbreaking in this marriage.
The whole story actually pivots around the magistrate daughter, Jen. She is not what she appears; she's temperamental, impulsive, spoilt yet endearing, strong, intelligent and damn gorgeous! At first, she looks plain, frail; then her appeal grows exponentially as the show progress and she acts as a foil to all the other characters and their own motivation. M Yeoh repeatedly went out of her way to shield her yet fatefully misjudged her intentions. Li Mubai claimed to be taken by her martial art potential and offered even to teach her, yet it was questionable whether it was Jen the student or Jen the lover that he wanted. Long, Jen's lover, gave her up to save his skin; yet in the next breath, he claims he would make something of himself to reclaim her from her parents.... hmmm, ladies do you buy that?
And Jen, what does she want? She runs from a pre-arranged marriage then finds herself trapped by the wilderness and hypocrisy of the martial arts world, by society's expectations, her fears, her love for Long (or is it Li Mubai?). Like a child lost in the woods but unfortunately for everyone, she's loaded and armed with a sword of immense potential and martial arts prowess that lay waste to a few buildings! Sort of like arming a confused high school girl with an AK47 and letting her loose in a bar of lecherous men!
This show is remarkable in that nothing is in black & white. It is after all, an art film as well whereby the audience deduce the character's motivation based on their own personal opinions and perceptions. The director presents the character doing this & that and it is up to us to decide the why and the purpose. Don't go in expecting a 1+1=2 solution; heck, real life is NEVER that cut & dry. Hidden thoughts and motivations are revealed in glimpses by what we do and what we let slip in speech. And this is how the show presents itself. One can watch it purely for the aesthetic and the adrenaline rush of the fight scene but go in also with a thinking mind. This is NOT a brain dead type of movie like Drunken Fist or the One-Armed Swordsman. It is much more than that, a totally different plane and to see it any other way, would be a travesty, leaving both movie-maker and movie-goer mutually dissatisfied.
When the lights came on after the show, one of us was weeping, another one just kept saying "Fantastic! Fantastic!....", others huddled into groups of threes and fours discussing and expounding the show's themes and the character's deeds. My middle age mother made my sis and I bring her to see it AGAIN within FOUR days - she has not done anything of that sort since the Matrix came out. (And no, one cannot say whether the Matrix is better as both shows are TOTALLY different in style, content, presentation - two different worlds altogether. Matrix was mind-blowing, genre-bending & adrenaline pumping but it was NOT an art film. This one is; in disguise to some people.)
So far, I've seen it 4 times and I guess I'll watch it a fifth time this weekend. Writing this review has whet my appetite all over again! Thanks!