Saturday, February 5, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

On Wednesday, 9 February at 18:31, the Phnom Penh Film Club treats itself to by far the most outstanding member-requested title we have considered to this point, Ang Lee’s sweeping and incomparable epic of Chinese folklore from 2000, *Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon*.  

I was planning to start this entry by saying something sympathetic about the Academy’s challenge to pick the Best Picture of 2000, with all the astonishingly superlative movies that came out in that single, charmed year. And then I remembered that the film they did pick was *Gladiator*, and suddenly I didn't feel so sorry for them anymore. Meanwhile, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will always be remembered in certain circles as the first “foreign” film to seriously contend for the main Best Picture category: the film that laid down over the barbed wire of Hollywood parochialism to permit Bong Joon-Ho’s *Parasite* to run across in 2019, and win. At least Crouching Tiger is getting remembered, and watched, two decades after its release upended everything we thought we knew about Chinese films, martial arts folklore, and maybe even the most basic precepts of cinematic narrative. And make no mistake: Even now this picture has a *lot* of friends. It deserves them. 
Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, lifelong colleagues near the end of their useful careers as sword-wielding protectors of Governor Yu, administrator to one of the Qing Dynasty's largest and western-most districts, and himself the proud keeper of the "Green Destiny," a sword of unusual prowess and almost mythical cachet in the eyes of his subjects. When the sword is stolen and Li Mu Bai's kung fu master is killed by minions of the infamous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), Li and Yu must strike out into the breathtaking west-China landscape to avenge the murder and recover the sword.

Okay, yes: Explained that way, this could be just about any martial arts picture of the past thirty-five years—let's say, for the sake of argument, about half of Quentin Tarrantino's beta-tape collection altogether. But the thrillingly remarkable thing about Crouching Tiger is that these tried-and-true elements of Asian martial arts cinema form the mere jumping-off point (literally?) for a plot so much richer in both complexity and empathy as to leave the unsuspecting viewer feeling all but intentionally misled.

The beating heart of the film (and of the book from which it was adapted) is the cleverly inventive conflict faced by Yu and Li in their dealings with the young and impetuous would-be courtesan, Jen Yu: a comely young aspirant who serves variously as their protege, their sweetly adored proto-daughter, their quarry in a high-stakes pursuit for truth and justice, their mortal enemy, and their only real vessel for confessing the honesty of their feelings for each other, and who yet eludes any and all of these nice neat boxes into which they repeatedly try to fit her and her exasperating exploits. 

Jen Yu, it happens, may or may not actually have stolen the sword herself, and may or may not be intending its possession as her calling-card to throw off the oppressively malevolent tutelage of Jade Fox, under whom she's been secretly and semi-willingly a pupil ever since her forced separation from a Mongol lover who'd stolen her heart after taking her hostage as a teenager. Over the next two hours the three kung fu warriors, Yu Shu Lien, Li Mu Bai, and Jen Yu, will pause between sessions of the breathtaking swordsmanship and (physically impossible but somehow instantly credible nonetheless) aerial martial arts displays, to ruminate over a galaxy of complex moral and existential dilemmas, from the consequences of admitting a forbidden love to the perils of choosing the wrong mentor, to the very nature and point of close, unconditional friendship. Ultimately these existential dilemmas disarm even the most cynically dis-believing martial arts rejectionist among us, in favor of a simple immersion in the universally enthralling characters and their could-happen-to-anybody problems.

Ang Lee's direction is typically conscious of tone and composition, inspiring his actors to explore the depths of their own capacities for subtle turns of attitude over a more clamped-down, this-happened-then-this-happened interpretation of the somewhat different-feeling book. The cinematography is lush and epic without seeming turgid, the high-China triptick is worth the price of admission all by itself, the wire-work is instantly (if unexpectedly) believable, and the mostly cello-led score, composed by Tan Dun and played with just the sort of arresting virtuosity one might expect from Yo Yo Ma, fills every spare corner of its own space in the picture without intruding on anyone else's.

It's been said that there are really only a small handful of "stories" in the world: The getting-home story (Das Boot, O Brother Where Art Thou, Apollo-13, Saving Private Ryan), the learn-to-love-before-you-miss-it story (Good Will Hunting, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Amelie, Punch Drunk Love), the proving-one's-self-to-one's-self story (Rocky, The Verdict, Scent of a Woman, gosh, even Silence of the Lambs). But frankly I know of no other single picture that dares to tackle this at-once ubiquitous and yet so prickly question of what, exactly, one does when one's affection for a young and roguish colleague is placed in direct conflict with one's duty to serve the larger good. Many of us have been there, our unflinching desire to see the younger colleague prosper as we have before them—an impulse perhaps reflective of a certain measure of ego-tainted superiority on our own parts but sincere and well-intentioned nonetheless—brought into such swift collision with that young colleague's impetuous insistence on his or her own set of rules and principles. Crouching Tiger is about *this* story, more than any others, and that makes it little short of unique as far as I know. And this is to say nothing of the exquisitely delicate and understated portrait of Li Mu Bai's and Yu Shu Lien's exquisitely delicate and understated love, for each other.

The kung fu, the sword wielding, and the impeccably choreographed many-against-one set pieces are, of course, vastly superior both in ambition and polish to anything that's ever been attempted in a martial arts picture before, and it does the movie no disservice to comment on these elements for the peerless standard-bearers that they are. But the shame of the thing is the expectation that so many of my friends have brought to the picture: that all they'll be watching is a bunch of people in flowing white robes floating impossibly amid a high stand of bamboo and kicking each other. For this reason it's been a tough sell, to get friends and family to sit still for this one. The loss is theirs.

About ten years ago I set out to blog a 100-title countdown of my own selections for the greatest movies ever made. There were many recurring visualizations of how folks might react, but the very first exchange that I heard inside my head, before I’d uploaded the first installment, was of someone logging-in to say, "How could you possibly have put Crouching Tiger in any position on your list other than number one?" Other films would eventually command the same thought exercise (Coppola’s *The Conversation*, Sam Mendes’ *American Beauty*, Bergman’s *Scenes From a Marriage*), but this one was the first title that sprang to mind as a difficult movie to explain into a slot any lower than my choice for overall greatest.  Tough question to answer, in the end. It may well be the single greatest motion picture ever made.

I hope everyone will plan to join us on Wednesday evening at 18:31 for this extraordinary cinematic tour de force of career-zenith performances and a thrillingly compelling and unexpected tale. I can utterly promise that first-time viewers will not soon forget the moment that they joined the ranks of those who’ve seen this film. 

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