The Good: Visually stunning, Good story, Lack of predictability, Good character, Good acting
The Bad: The Lo Digression
The Basics: Finally, a beautifully shot martial arts film that doesn't cover up lacks with flash, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is all around wonderful!
Every now and then we encounter things that affect us and we want to write about them, despite the fact that is is reviewed to death. I had been hearing overwhelming praise for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for years and I have been waiting to see it. So many things I've seen lately have failed to live up to the hype. In fact, the only film that has surprised me in the last month has been Pay It Forward (reviewed here!). Well, until now, that is. The hype for The Phantom Menace killed the hype for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Pleasantly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon lived up to my expectations.
What I had expected from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a visually amazing, character-driven magical realism film. It was all of those things.
Master Li Mu Bai has decided to hang up his sword and retire from the free-lance law enforcement job in Western China. He is accompanied to Peking by his long-time companion, Yu Shu Lien. It's obvious from the beginning that they're both repressing their romantic feelings for each other. So, Shu Lien hands Li Mu Bai's sword over to Sir Te. Then the Green Destiny (the sword) is stolen and Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien go on the case to find the thief.
What happens next begins like a pretty standard police investigation. But, instead of shoot outs, there are protracted hand to hand combat battles and they are magnificent to watch! The moment the sword is found and the thief revealed, Li Mu Bai's archenemy reappears and Li Mu Bai goes on a quest to avenge the murder of his master.
I've never been fond of martial arts films; usually, they resort to fighting to cover up defects in character development. There's usually little acting, but amazing choreography of fight scenes. As a genre, it's weakened by a habit of replacing substance with style and most people reading my reviews know style doesn't rate anywhere near as high with me as substance.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon redefines the genre. It's a compelling story; all of the characters have reasons for being where they are, doing what they do and we, the viewers, get to know them. That works wonderfully and the characters move the film. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are well defined, but so too are their nemesis' the Jade Fox and . . . well, I'm not going to reveal the other one, because that's a surprise. Okay, it's a predictable one if you're awake for the first few minutes of the film.
The only con I could come up with was a ten minute digression where a past romance is thoroughly explored. It's important and it develops character, but it's out of place and too long for the flashback sequence. But the thing is, Star Wars is a good analogy to this film and while the podrace scene in The Phantom Menace is ten minutes of my life I'll never be able to get back, the ten minute romance episode here accomplishes something and it builds character which is far more important than the special effects extravaganza in The Phantom Menace.
In fact, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the solution to all the faults of The Phantom Menace. It has a mentor and protege where the mentor actually helps the protege and the mentor's motivations make sense and are explored. It has politics and romance and they work.
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© 2011, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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