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Shining Surface, Hidden Depths – review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Thursday, February 22, 2001

‘It looks great, I like the fight scenes, but it’s unbelievable and the story is really thin.’

Heard this judgement on Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’? Yeah, me too. It’s both right and so far wrong that it demands a closer look.

‘It looks great’

No argument there. From the gorgeous Michelle Yeoh to the serene forest scenes, and from the exquisite interiors to the epic scale of the desert, the film positively glows.

‘I like the fight scenes’

Thought you might. This is, after all, a genre movie – a homage to the tradition of martial arts movies, and with The Matrix’s fight choreographer on the case, we get combat that deserves the oft-misused adjective balletic. There’s a grace and precision that mocks the leaden clumsiness of most Hollywood portrayals of swordplay. ‘Gladiator’ might be stirring but most often you can’t tell who’s doing what to whom amidst the sweat and the sand (a bit like ‘Temptation Island’, come to think of it, but that’s another story).

‘It’s unbelievable’

The longer version of this argument goes, ‘It was fine until they started running across the rooftops. And when they’re standing on the branches of the trees? I mean, come on, that could never happen.’ Since when do movies have had to be believable in the strictly limited sense of what’s physically possible? 

It’s the movies. Luke Skywalker can use the force and no-one complains that that’s impossible. The kid who’s going to be King Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, and that’s fine too, because it’s part of the story.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. For a Western audience, the milieu of Crouching Tiger is so alien that we try to judge it by the rules we feel most comfortable with – like gravity. It shouldn’t have to work like that.

‘The story is really thin’

This inability to suspend disbelief is also at the root of the last criticism. It’s true that the story is simple, but that’s simple like a folktale, or a myth, and creating this atmosphere in a movie is a remarkable achievement. The big stories and ideas are simple and profound (God sends his only son to die for our sins; Boy meets girl; Why can’t we all just get along?).

These are often driven by the conflict between what want to do and what we must do: love vs. duty, family vs. country, passion vs. fate. The simple stories tell us about ourselves and the values that matter to us. And Crouching Tiger talks of beauty, grace, wisdom, discipline, love and humility – a long way from our more workaday values of logic, efficiency and reason.

So ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ is more than great photography and kick-ass fights. If we look closer, there’s a tenderness and depth you don’t come across very often.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilm