When it’s on: Sunday, 29 April 2012 (1.30 pm)
Gladiator claimed Best Film at the 2001 Academy Awards, but in the list of nominees was a bit of an oddity – Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dagger, or Wo hu cang long as it’s called in China. The characters spoke in Mandarin, filmed against a range of Chinese locations and sets, on a production with American and Chinese money behind it. In the end, it had to be satisfied with technical awards and one for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, which was something of a fob off because it’s a better film than Ridley Scott’s Roman epic.
That said, the signs weren’t promising. Sure, the martial arts looked incredible, but these scenes were mixed in with long passages of people talking in that overtly mannered way that appeared to be the way of things in medieval China. Would people really go for it?
They did, transforming the film into the first foreign language picture to gross $100m at the American box office. That’s because it’s saved by several elements, beginning with the martial arts. Woo-ping Yuen had already earned plaudits for choreographing the fight sequences in The Matrix, following years serving Chinese cinema as an actor, stuntman, action director and indeed any suitable hands-on role. For Crouching Tiger, he choreographed a form of martial arts based around balance and meditation, the former to give its fighters the balletic speed that makes the combat such a delight, the latter to suggest they can achieve such a high level of awareness that they can actually fly. Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi – its principal combatants – can’t really do the things they do in the film, but there is a logic underpinning their fighting ability that holds it together. The scenes are filmed beautifully by Peter Pau, the film’s cinematographer, who somehow stops it from becoming a confusing mess. Edited before the current fashion for quick, dizzying cuts, every kick, parry, block and blow is there on the screen, and these people are going at each other with incredible speed.
Crouching Tiger is a wuxia film. This is a Chinese genre of fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. The earliest stories are more than two thousand years ago, written by artists who took full advantage of their country’s dramatic landscape to create epic visions. Lee and Pau replicated this in their location choices, whether filming in the Gobi Desert or the Anji bamboo forest to depict wildly differing backdrops to the action. Whatever its politics, China is a country with areas of breathtaking natural beauty. Its climactic scenes, set in the Wudang mountains, are just ravishing, and this is merely the last throw of a film that knows where to point its camera.
The film is based on a book by wuxia author, Wang Dulu, who stopped writing after the Chinese Civil war and eventually died in poverty, relegated to the role of farm labourer as a result of the Cultural Revolution. His books focused on the tragic element of the martial arts life, in this story the unspoken love between Li Mu Bai (Chow) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) that has been suppressed by a life in service as warriors. At the same time, Jen (Zhang) is preparing for marriage, but yearns both for the mountain bandit she came to love years ago, along with a life of adventure that seems epitomised by Yu Shu. In disguise, Jen steals a famous sword, whilst her old Master in the arts, Jade Fox, is chased by the authorities by her previous crimes.
There’s lots going on, most of the exposition emerging through conversations that steadily become more barbed and suspenseful as the web of relationships emerges. It works because of the quality of the actors, too often an issue with previous, low budget wuxia productions that simply couldn’t afford the calibre of performers. The three principals might have spoken different languages, making the Mandarin dialogue torturous for all concerned, but despite this there’s no mistaking the lingering looks, facial expressions and repressed yearning.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: ****