Crouching Passions, Hidden Emotions
By Walter Ang
November 7, 2000
Confuse Shoes Column, Tsinoy.com
Film director Ang Lee was introduced to international audiences with his movies The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man,Woman. He was later tapped to direct Sense and Sensibility. The English countryside seems far removed from Taiwan, where the director hails, but he slipped into it effortlessly.
After helming The Ice Storm, this time America circa 1970s, he moves to Ching Dynasty China and gives us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. First off, this is one instance where I've wanted to watch the Chinese version of a film rather than the English dubbed version. Provided, of course, there'd be English subtitles to help me along the way. I learned Chinese back in school, but most of it escapes me, much to the dismay of my parents and scores of uncles and aunts.
However, I am at least able to understand Mandarin and can carry a fairly civil conversation. This is why when a good Chinese movie comes along, especially if it's an Ang Lee one, I prefer to watch it in Chinese. The emotions and nuances of the characters are obviously better delineated and expressed. Unfortunately, the only versions showing in Manila so far are the English dubbed ones.
The language, however, does not take away from the other points of this film. The principal actors carry the film well and deliver textured performances, much the way you'd expect an Ang Lee film to be. It is interesting to note that Ang Lee has done films where women are the central focus. Just as in his previous films, such as the sisters in Eat, Drink and Sense, the women in Crouching Tiger have substantial roles equal to and, at times, surpassing their male counterparts. The two female protagonists' fight scenes number more and are also more complex than what you'd see with the male warriors in this film.
This film revolves around women warriors Jen Yu (Zhang Zi yi) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh} and their intertwined relationships with Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Lo (Chang Chen). Apart from showcasing the characters' combating skills, their inner workings are explored, revealing lots of gray areas motivating their actions. When Yu Shu Lien looks at Li Mu Bai, the longing is evident, but expressing it seems a more difficult task than killing off an enemy. It's all in the eyes.
The characters try to find balance in a world of social obligations, repressed desires, and explosive passions. This kind of emotional interplay is where Ang is most adept. His effort to incorporate this into a martial arts movie, however, is something up for discussion. Fans of hardcore, fast-paced, action-packed kung fu movies may not enjoy Crouching Tiger as much since it decidedly takes a more roundabout path.
The gracefully choreographed fight scenes aren't an end to themselves but only serve to drive the drama along. While the plot that sets the movie off is nothing new, I personally found it refreshing that the martial arts isn't the main point. The fight scenes were elegant yet had a tongue in cheek quality to them (they had little injections of humor typical of kung fu films). The film is not just a kung fu movie with flying kicks and gliding warriors, it's a sweeping drama with restrained loves and hidden emotions.