Hi-Keebaaaa! Gym-kata! Daaaaahhh!!!!
We used to hear martial arts film sound like that, full of sound and fury signifying nothing but a good time at the movies. Don’t worry. The ‘good time’ part hasn’t changed. Lately people have been attending a good-time little art-house foreign movie about two sets of lovers. One consisting of two people who have been in love for a long time but seem unable to admit it to each other. The other, young and restless with passion. Sounds like director Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, right? Well, yes, you would be right in thinking that. “Well, what’s fun about that?” you ask. Well, this version takes place in Peking and has characters who haven’t paid the gravity bill in months.
Yes, it seems that American audiences have embraced a whole new kind of movie: A martial arts saga with a David Lean scope and Jane Austin sensibility. Of course, I’m speaking of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a movie that thrills and surprises most men, women and children who attend it. I have seen the movie four times (as of this writing) and I will probably see it a few more times while it plays on the big screens. I know for certain it won’t be quite the same experience on video, even on a superior format such as DVD. The movie never gets old and I notice a consistent phenomenon with every screening.
It goes like this: The trailers and fanfare come on and people laugh and make little comments about them. Nothing new there. Usually at this time, I’m looking around me trying to figure out who will be yapping annoyingly throughout the movie and who will be chewing their popcorn right in my ear. I can never seem to get away from these offenders.
Then, Crouching Tiger starts and a few people continue to make a couple comments here and there. Usually, you can hear one guy say to his girlfriend, “You didn’t tell me this was subtitled.” The story begins with the two main characters, Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), engaging in a conversation, where Mu Bai explains why he has returned from his training, and why he wishes to fight no longer. Here, the audience shuts up. They read. They have to read this movie. They can’t get out of that. They read, and they get sucked in.
Then, the first fight scene comes on. An elegant and stunning display of camera wizardry and body movement moving at a breakneck speed. People float, soaring majestically along the rooftops of Peking. Michelle Yeoh fights a thief who has stolen the Green Destiny, a sword once owned by Mu Bai. Yeoh and the thief trade whacks, punches, kicks, spins, all at a furious rhythm. We’ve seen it in Jackie Chan movies, yes, but they’ve never gone beyond the streets and alleyways. Here, the fight scene propels the storyline. A silent sniper lurks in the distance. The thief, we learn, has been trained at the exclusive school of Wudan, and after the literally breathtaking, drum-pounding fight sequence, the sword has been stolen and the story takes flight. The audience, meanwhile, doesn’t say a word. They can’t breathe.
Does this mean that American audiences have warmed up to subtitles? Does this mean people will let themselves see more high-brow entertainment like Children Of Heaven or The Three Colors Trilogy? Not likely. I realize people do not go see Crouching Tiger for the storyline, but the fact that it has one and puts it first and foremost before the fight sequences has a lot to do with the movie’s success. I think a lot of it has to do with the flashback in the middle of the movie.
In the flashback the thief, Jen (the porcelain beauty Zhang ZiYi), travels with her mother through a dessert with a convoy of servants and expensive goods. They get robbed by a gang of bandits headed by the charismatic Lo (Chen Chang), who makes a point of stealing rich Jen’s comb. Not about to be undone by a petty thief, Jen chases after Lo, which results in a humorous battle of wills between the two. Eventually, they fall in love. The flashback lasts about a half-hour, taking its time, building the romantic tension gradually and convincingly. Up until the flashback, the story focuses on the theft of Mu Bai’s sword and his conflict involving his unspoken love for Shu Lien and whether or not Mu Bai wants to avenge the death of his master. Its attractive young leads hook us in during the flashback and we forget that we came to watch a martial arts movie.
Basically, Crouching Tiger has it all. It has dual love stories for the women, the greatest fight sequences ever filmed for the men (which, ironically enough, consist mostly of women), and a sophistication and untouchable beauty for the art-house audiences, most of whom have grown used to subtitles. Women walk out with a tear running down their cheek. Some people walk out debating what really happened at the end of the story (Hint: Listen to Lo’s speech about the old legend.) The guys in the audience walk out mistakingly comparing the fight sequences to those seen in The Matrix.
And by the way, can we put a stop to that? Crouching Tiger sours head, shoulders and bamboo treetops far above The Matrix. I don’t mean to discount the enjoyment level of The Matrix. I enjoyed it, sure, but it lacks a heart. Some movies have been written from the heart and some from the brain. The Matrix has clearly been written from the brain, and a smart one at that. But Crouching Tiger has been written from both the heart and brain with a tight story to boot, and you can’t beat that with all the Lucasfilm special effects in the world. Plus, The Matrix has Keanu Reeves. That alone…
You also may not know this, but fight sequences involving flying has been a longtime Hong Kong tradition that dates back to the 1960’s. The fighting style has also been referred to as “Wire-fu,” since the actors fly around via wires and harnesses. Also worth noting: The actors in Crouching Tiger did all fighting and flying sequences on the set! No green screen or matting involved, just a bit of digital wire-removal in post-production. Think of The Matrix as Hong Kong fight sequences with a ‘pause’ button.
As of this writing, Crouching Tiger has grossed $53.5. It will surpass the foreign art-house champ, Life Is Beautifulp, which grossed $58 million. Its per-screen averages have been the best of any movie all season. It stands a great chance of being nominated for several major Academy Awards, which will propel its success even further. I believe it could very well reach the $100 million mark.
Don’t believe me? IMAX screens have been showing Crouching Tiger on a regular basis where it has been playing to sold-out crowds. I tried to get in once, but some mega-corporation bought out the first two shows for all their suit-and-tie employees.
Whatever success Crouching Tiger still has coming to it, I wouldn’t expect it to become a trend. Sure, we’ll get more martial arts imports for a while, but nothing that will inspire us to want to take flying lessons (I looked into it. Very expensive). We’ll probably see a short parody of it pop up in Scary Movie 2, or something like that. For now, though, we can all rejoice the idea that people have been taking the chance on a smart, fun, moving bit of visual poetry. Who knows? Maybe this will last.
Make a wish, Lo.
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originally posted: 02/04/01 18:11:28