Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director: Ang Lee

As the 1001 Movies tells it, Lee’s intention with this film was to make the best martial arts movie possible. The extent to which he achieved this is, obviously, is a matter of individual judgement, but the ambition cannot be faulted, and—at least in my opinion—neither can much of the execution. Obviously a shitload of people felt the same back in the day, when it became a surprise megahit in the US where it soon became the highest-earning foreign film ever (is it still?) and took out Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (plus a Best Picture nomination, among several others), although I do recall back then some people were sniffy about its success; they were hardened Asian action fans who’d been watching films like this for years, and while the uninitiated were oohing and aahing at the flying swordfights and stuff, they were grumbling that Lee wasn’t really doing anything they hadn’t seen before. Which isn’t actually entirely unfair, I suppose, Lee wasn’t really doing much that was new even if most of the people watching this film hadn’t seen it done before. But he was doing these things with probably more resources than any wu xia film had ever had thrown at it before, plus the film did have the relative novelty of an already internationally recognised arthouse filmmaker being the director… indeed, on rewatching it tonight, I got a real sense of self-consciousness about the film, as if it knew it were the martial arts film (cf. what I said recently about Stagecoach and the western), which I suppose is how many people must see it. But also I was struck by how much of the story I’d forgotten, probably because there’s an awful lot of story to keep track of. In some respects you can sum it up as “sisters doing it for themselves”; Jade Fox has killed Li Mubai’s master for refusing to teach a woman his sword skills, and now her disciple has taught herself many of the skills in order to outdo her own master. But there is obviously more to it than just that, and CTHD excels where a martial arts film really should, i.e. the frequency and quality of the fights. Beautifully photographed, well choreographed, it’s not really surprising the film was the hit that it was; the time was obviously right for this sort of thing to go big, and I won’t complain about this being the one that did.

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