Thursday, April 21, 2011

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

It's Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting Week! All this week we'll look at some notable martial arts films, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
from my DVD collection

The first time I saw Michelle Yeoh was actually at a kung fu festival. This would've been sometime around 1996-97, I think. Cinema Village, a tiny little theater in the heart of Greenwich Village, was showing a bunch of martial arts films around the Christmas season. I've been to Cinema Village a few times; they show lots of foreign films. Anyway, "A Kung Fu Christmas" was still going on when Jenny and me, along with our mutual friend Abby, went there on New Year's Eve to catch a doubleheader of Asian films featuring this female action star I'd never heard of. It was Abby's idea; she was a fan. It was an unusual way to spend New Year's Eve, but I was game.

I'm not sure what the two films were - looking over Yeoh's IMDB page, I'm pretty sure one of them was Wing Chun, and the other may have been Supercop. I thought the movies were alright, although to be honest, I was beginning to doze off a bit later in the evening and I was kinda looking ahead to midnight, so I was distracted towards the end and ended up not paying as much attention.

So Yeoh eventually came over to America and became a Bond girl, appearing in Tomorrow Never Dies. I saw it on video. I was impressed with her stunts, and I thought it was really cool to see a woman be an action hero, but I still didn't get a full appreciation of her. If I had seen her films to that point under better circumstances - especially if I had seen them on a big screen (the Cinema Village screens aren't exactly wide) - I might've gotten more excited by her, but I wasn't.

Then I saw Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I believe I saw it at the Regal Cinemas E-Walk in Times Square, so it was definitely a wide screen. It was opening weekend, and not late at night, so the circumstances were perfect. From the first time I saw her on the screen, my entire perception of Yeoh changed. For one thing, seeing her face larger than life and close-up, I noticed for the first time how utterly beautiful she was (and is!). I couldn't take my eyes off of her, and she hadn't even done anything yet other than talk with Chow Yun-Fat. There have been plenty of female movie stars, past and present, that I've been hot for, but there are few who have left me as smitten as Yeoh. Certainly part of it was her character, but it was something about her beauty that left me gobsmacked. Still does too.

Oh, and then she starts to fight. And boy, can she fight! Re-watching Tiger on DVD last night, her fights still left me breathless, both hand-to-hand and with swords. Seeing it for the first time, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before - and not just because of the wire work that had everybody floating and leaping great bounds. Tiger was the movie that finally made me sit up and take notice of Yeoh as an all-around movie star.

Last night I watched Tiger with the audio commentary from director Ang Lee and executive producer/co-writer James Schamus for the first time. Among the many things they talked about was Lee's approach to making a kung fu movie for the first time, as well as his ideas about the sub-genre in general. They noted that because Tiger is a period piece set in an Eastern culture, there was a huge challenge in trying to make this movie appeal to modern, Western audiences. As a result, the screenplay had to take some liberties with the time period. There's a lot of talking about feelings, for example, something one would not see in an Asian movie like this and certainly not something that the Chinese of this time period (the 19th century) would do.

Lee compared kung fu movies to musicals, where "anything goes in broad strokes." He acknowledges that he took risks, storytelling-wise, such as the long flashback sequence with Jen and Lo in the desert, or even the simple fact of devoting as much time to drama as to fights, something, he said, that's unusual in most kung fu movies. He said a good fight scene can take months to film.

Lee also talked about the master and student relationship in kung fu movies, which is an important recurring element in Tiger. Jen is Jade Fox's protege, but she learns stuff outside of Jade Fox's realm of expertise, and a big deal is made of how Jen is capable of surpassing her mentor. According to Lee, normally a student is not supposed to surpass their master. There's always a little bit of knowledge that the master keeps to him- or herself.

I admit, even with all of this new information, there are aspects of Tiger that I still don't fully grok, but the more I watch it, the more I'm able to gleam tiny bits of understanding from it. Lee also said that for all of the kung fu conventions that it subverts, there are plenty that it retains as well. Indeed, Tiger is eminently re-watchable in part because Lee approached the fight scenes as an extension of character. Add the love-story element and an outstanding score and you've got one hell of a movie.


Previously in Kung-Fu Week:
Drunken Master
The Last Dragon


  1. I have a pretty serious Yeoh-crush. My favorite role of hers is in Memoirs of a Geisha. She's ethnically miscast, but still pretty brilliant.

  2. I heard that one wasn't too good. What did you think of it?


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