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Empire List #497: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The year 2000 was the year when special effect movies such as “X-men,” “The Patriot,” and “The Perfect Storm” were unleashed upon audiences. In early December, another movie featuring special effects was released just in time for Oscar season, only this one had less computer generated images, more shots of grand landscapes, martial arts, and it was all spoken in Mandarin.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was one of Ang Lee’s breakthrough films in Hollywood. It became an international hit and won four Academy Awards including Best Foreign Language Film. Unfortunately, I did not see it on the big screen, which would have been more appropriate considering the beauty of the fight scenes, but on a Television screen off a VHS tape that was dubbed in French.

This is actually one of the few movies that my parents chose to buy. Usually my brother and I would put a bunch of action films or raunchy comedies on our Christmas wish lists and if our parents wouldn’t buy them we would buy them ourselves with our allowance. But I guess after seeing some of the previews and watching the Academy Awards, my parents decided this foreign movie would be worth watching as a family in our living room.

I didn’t really care that it was foreign. Back in 2001, when I believe we first watched it, we were still living in Lima, Peru and whatever escapism I could get I gladly took. In fact I am pretty sure that this is when my love of movies fully developed. I did not socialize in class, I hated the chaos of the city, and I couldn’t wait to go back to Quebec every summer. So if mom and dad wanted to take us on a trip to China during the Qin Dynasty via a VHS tape, I had no problem with that whatsoever.

That being said, I did not fully understand the story the first time I saw it, despite the fact that the dialogue had been dubbed into my native language. I understood that Li Mu Bai (Chow-Yun Fat) is a warrior trying to retire but someone steals his powerful sword. He is in love with female warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) but neither of them will act upon it. Zhang Ziyi plays Jen, a governor’s daughter who is in love with a desert bandit called Lo (Chang Chen) who wants them to elope. Also in the picture is the movie’s villain, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) who murdered Li Mu Bai’s master.

That’s where I got lost. For a while that villain is only mentioned and not seen. I was not quite sure why she was the villain or why Jen was siding with her. It was also confusing for Jen to steal the sword, return it out of guilt, and then steal it again. I wished she would just make up her mind already.

Jen’s love story with Lo the desert bandit also seemed a bit cheesy. The guy attacked her caravan, stole her comb and she chased him across the desert to get it back. Once in his secret hideout, they fall in love despite the fact that he has technically kidnapped her. Yeah, these two are star-crossed lovers all right. I think my dad the cynic said it best when he asked “Why doesn’t he just give her the freaking comb already?”

Then again this movie did not gain so much acclaim because of the story. What people remember the most are scenes such as Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien chasing the sword thief and practically floating from building to building. Then there is the fight between Jen and Lien during which Jen keeps breaking every weapon that Lien uses. Finally there is my personal favourite, the completely gratuitous barfight between Jen and every armed patron inside the bar. Then again aren’t most barfights gratuitous? Although if I recall well, that particular fight won the MTV Movie Award for best fight so I guess I am not the only one who thought it was special.

What is impressive about the fights in this movie, and most of the martial arts films that came from Asia during that decade, is that the violence is not choreographed like regular movie violence. There is a poetry being communicated to the audience as these characters duel with each other using swords, lances, and other sharp objects.

I find sword fighting to be a much more personal way to stage a deadly conflict. When there is a duel involving guns, it can be over in two seconds if there are only two warriors. But with, swords it can last up to ten minutes. During that time, the warriors get to know each other’s strength and weaknesses. It’s like in “Kill Bill: Volume 1” when Uma Thurman is fighting Lucy Liu. At first Liu’s character is disrespecting Thurman’s Bride character, but as the fight goes on, Liu not only acknowledges Thurman’s strength but apologizes for being disrespectful earlier.

Overall, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a pleasing experience the first time and I would love to experience it again. Only this time, I would upgrade to DVD and would probably watch it in Mandarin with subtitles. I like movies in French and movies made in Quebec, but if a movie was shot in German, I will watch it in German, even if I can barely understand German. Sometimes things just get lost in translation, and if I pay to watch actors perform on-screen I also want to hear their voices, not the voices of different actors reading a different text in a sound booth. It’s like I am only getting half of the performance. To illustrate my point, the French title for “Crouching Tiger…” is simply “Tigres et Dragons” (Tigers and Dragons). Doesn’t it feel as though something is missing?        


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