Crouching Tiger is Ang Lee's take on the Wu Xia tradition of film making. Wu Xia, for those not familiar with the style, evolved out of popular Chinese fiction. It contains formulaic elements such as honourable warriors, powerful swordswomen, powerful swords, and often magic and mythical beasts. Possibly, it has a parallel with sword and sorcery pulp literature ? and even Western romances.
Although he grew up in Taiwan, not Hong Kong or China, Ang Lee has said he has always wanted to make a Wu Xia film. When he did, he brought sophistication and strong production values which, while not uncommon in mainstream Chinese cinema, was less common in the martial arts or Wu Xia traditions.
Make no mistake; Crouching Tiger is a beautiful, beautiful movie. The colours are rich, the light dances and the movements are balletic. But unlike lesser imitations, such as Hero, it is much more than that just stylish production and mesmerising action.
Most films (Western or Eastern) have a rigid plot against which characters move. At worst the characters become ciphers; they advance the story by making choices regardless of whether these choices are in keeping with their character. Crouching Tiger, like the best of cinema, has dynamic characters whose internal struggles advance the plot. The dog wags the tail, not the other way around.
At the heart of Crouching Tiger is the relationship between Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Mu Bai is looking for a way out of the Gang Ho (Warrior) lifestyle ? he joins a monastery, as a route to enlightenment and peace, but cannot cast aside his unrequited love for Shu Lien (another warrior). On the brink of declaring their love for one another, Mu Bai's Green Destiny Sword is stolen, and his arch enemy returns. He must temporarily put aside his feelings to recover the sword and bring his master's killer to justice? Seeming to take a fair chunk from his previously directorial role, Sense and Sensibility, Ang Lee weaves a story which tragically juxtaposes the loving and giving but repressed relationship of Mu Bai and Shu Lien, with the fiery, wilful and destructive passions of Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) and Lo (Chang Chen). The result, for me, was breathtaking.
Some critics have suggested that the characterisation is quite slight. I think this just demonstrates the high standard to which they were prepared to judge this film. Ang Lee perfectly marries action/adventure with drama. The results may not please purists from either camp, but for the rest of the audience it is pure magic.
In many ways, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is pure Wu Xia. But it has also re-invented the genre and given it artistic credibility. The greatest joy of the film is watching great Hong Kong stars like Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh being given characters with depth ? and watching them fill the screen with their performances. The film also benefits from great performances from Zhang Ziyi and a very under-rated Chang Chen.
Quite simply, Crouching Tiger has everything. It is beautiful, breathtaking and deeply moving.