Crouching Horse-Horse-Tiger-Tiger Hidden Dragon

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Since I've had a discussion of movies, I thought I'd continue the trend. Here's a review I wrote of "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" when it came out.

One of the first things I learned to say when I began studying Chinese was mamahuhu, which means "horse-horse-tiger-tiger." It is an idiomatic expression denoting something which is an uncomfortable hybrid, neither successfully this or that, nor even a worthy combination of the two; it's often translated as "mediocre" or "so-so." One of the first things I heard about Ang Lee's new movie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, was that Lee had described it as "Bruce Lee meets Jane Austen;" one of his assistants called it "Sense and Sensibility with sword fights."

I'm a big fan of Austen, and if there were anyone who could blend Bruce Lee and Austen successfully, it would be Ang Lee, whose first three movies were set (at least in part) in his native Taiwan; his fourth movie was Sense and Sensibility (1995). But I would have to say that I found this movie more horse-horse-tiger-tiger than tiger-tiger-dragon-dragon.

One big disappointment was the primary love story. "Jane Austen meets anything" must have at least one love story, and Crouching Tiger has several. The first involves Li Mu Bai (Chow Yung Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), who have long been in love but never admitted it for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Shu Lien's fiance was killed in battle next to Li Mu Bai. But their passion, supposedly on the point of bursting forth after years of restraint, isn't portrayed successfully. Mu Bai displays far greater passion in his devotion to his sword the Green Destiny, or his attempts to woo Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who repeatedly steals the Green Destiny from him, into becoming his disciple. When Jen finally asks, "Is it the sword or me you really want?" I was glad the movie acknowledged the force of his attraction to her.

Jen is involved in the rest of the love stories, usually as the one who breaks a heart. The love affair I cared about most involved Jen and Lo, a bandit living in the western desert whom Jen pursues because he steals her comb. "I'm not big or tall, but I'm quick as the wind" he tells Jen, and he could add that he's charming, funny and fairly gentlemanly--Henry Tilney residing in a cave rather than Northanger Abbey. But Jen is no more faithful to him than she is to her house maid/martial arts instructor Jade Fox or to her adopted sister Shu Lien.

Aside from Jen, the characters seem to have motivations that are not only simple but simplistic. Jade Fox (Chen Pei Pei) seeks esoteric knowledge because she is bad and wants to be able to defy social convention and kill those who thwart her; Li Mu Bai is good because he follows the rules and wants to kill Jade Fox. Yu Shu Lien is good because she is patient, long-suffering and honors the memory of her dead fiance; Yu Jen is bad because she doesn't even honor her living fiance--well, that doesn't quite make her bad, but her willingness to steal, lie, and break promises isn't quite enough to make her bad, either. She gets to be not quite good or bad, but it seems that the main reason for that might simply be that she's young and pretty.

Other elements of the movie offer more rewards. Like the rest of Lee's work, Crouching Tiger is beautifully filmed, gorgeous to look at. The fight scenes are amazing, energetic and inspiring dances precisely choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, the expert responsible for designing the similarly remarkable acrobatics in The Matrix. It's rare that anyone die in these fights scenes--Jade Fox is the only character evil enough to actually kill someone else--so you can enjoy them for the athletic prowess (and flying ability) of the combatants. Virtually every fight involves Jen, who usually wins. Especially notable is her handiwork, footwork and swordplay as she takes on an entire tavernful of tough guys, one or two or six at a time, defeating them all, leaving them with broken bones or missing teeth but steady pulses.

I was told I'd love this movie, and I wanted to. After all, it's in Chinese, most of the main characters are women, it's up for Best Picture and it isn't Gladiator. But I didn't love it. I thought it was OK. I don't feel I wasted either the price of the ticket or the time required to see it, but I was disappointed. I could see the crouching--or maybe it was cowering?-- horse-horse-tiger-tiger, but the hidden dragon stayed far too hidden.

1 Comment

Great review and I wanted to love it too but didn't for just the reasons you mentioned. Have you ever seen HERO? I thought it was a wonderful piece of work and dazzling for many reasons. I want to be Jet Li. Only at my height.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 26, 2006 8:01 AM.

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