Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is a martial arts master, but he is tired and wants to live a quiet life. Deciding to give up his sword, Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai requests that his devoted friend Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) deliver the weapon to the respected elder Sir Te. Longtime warriors with a shared tragedy, Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien were never able to act on their deeply buried love for each other… but from their longing glances, it seems this decision may finally give them back some of the time they have lost.
After Shu Lien successfully presents the sword to Sir Te, she’s introduced to another guest named Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the governor, who is preparing for her wedding. Jen looks like she is barely a woman, and expresses wide-eyed interest in Shu Lien’s life as a warrior, thinking her life must be very exciting. Shu Lien, smiles, but with a look of haunted sadness. A life on the road involves some glory but many sacrifices. Jen, of course, is intrigued.
In these first 15 minutes or so, the main characters are quietly introduced and established… But once that formality is taken care of, Crouching Tiger literally leaps into a magical world all its own.
The sword Green Destiny is stolen by a masked thief in the night (obviously Jen), and Shu Lien chases her to get it back. The two run across courtyards, but then run up walls, leap across roofs, and literally fly through the air after each other like cats, the only sound being their clothes flapping in the wind. And the wonderful thing is, it is done without campy irony or explanation. In between the flying and chasing is breathtaking, beautiful kick-ass fighting (choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, who created the fantastic fight scenes in The Matrix). During its original release in 2000, most American audiences had never seen an action movie like Crouching Tiger, and the audience I watched it with burst into applause and cheers when this scene concluded. And that is just the beginning…
The film was director Ang Lee’s tribute and twist on the pop culture martial arts genre of wuxia–but because he is who he is, he added his own touch of artistry and emotion. With its action, romance, and revenge, Crouching Tiger follows a classic B-movie plot, but casts A-list actors (like Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh) that know how to convey the most with a glance or a shift in stance, and gives the film astonishingly gorgeous visuals (which won a cinematography Oscar for Peter Pau).
The pacing of the film is at some times a bit erratic, flipping between quiet conversation to wild action sequences. There is a long interlude that flashes back to Jen’s romance with a desert bandit Lo (the dashing Cheng Chen) that is funny, action-packed, and passionate, despite seeming a little it out-of-place from the rest of the film. But the film actually gains momentum as it goes along, from the now iconic fight sequence between Mu Bai and Jen atop a swaying bamboo forest, to a beautiful romantic conclusion that actually made me weep.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon accomplishes the rare one-two punch of being both an exciting action flick, and a sweeping epic romance. Though it didn’t do particularly well in China, it was a smash box office hit in the West, ultimately winning four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film. Revisiting the film two decades later, I was unsurprised that the film holds up really well. In this era of CGI and sensory-overload visuals, Crouching Tiger is still eye-popping and gorgeous, making for a lush movie-going experience that is still thrilling and heartbreakingly moving.