“To understand what I am saying, you have to believe that dance is something other than technique. We forget where the movements come from. They are born from life. When you create a new work, the point of departure must be contemporary life—not existing forms of dance.” —Pina Bausch
“All this trouble for a comb?”—Lo (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
There’s a memorable moment toward the end of Gore Verbinski’s The Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl in which two immortal men engage in a duel to the death. The swordfight is the climax to a thrilling blockbuster adventure that masterfully negotiates its stakes and reversals, then peaks with a combat scene in which nothing of consequence can possibly happen. And yet it works. As the undead versions of Captain Jack Sparrow and the villainous pirate Barbossa have a spirited fencing match atop mountains of gold booty, their movements succinctly express the key differences that separate these otherwise likeminded characters.
Sparrow, as his name suggests, isn’t a brawler so much as a fluttering opportunist. He hops and darts away from the pirate’s lunges, his fighting style a physical distillation of the carefree puckishness that lets him survive in a world where attachments are often fatal. Barbossa, on the other hand, is a lumbering bruiser, chasing his scrappy opponent around with the brute force of someone who has too much skin in the game, and has forgotten the number one rule of Disneyland piracy: Have fun. It isn’t the first time these two enemies have come to blows, but here, in this nearly wordless exchange, the differences between them are most viscerally clear.
But the biggest reason the scene works is that it’s short. And yet almost all the extended fight sequences in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—objectively the most successful wu xia film of all time, and arguably the best—function the same way. There are five major fight sequences spread across the ravishing martial-arts melodrama, in addition to the brief skirmishes, and though all the various participants are mortal, their physical confrontations are a means, not an end. It isn’t that these characters can’t die in combat, but as the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that they won’t. After a supporting player gets a circular blade to the brain at the end of the the second brawl, the explicit stakes of the martial-arts sequences are reduced with each subsequent battle until, by the time the film arrives at its famous final duel in the stratosphere of a bamboo forest, they’ve dissolved into perfect abstraction. By the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of the leads dying or taking a serious wound in the midst of a sword fight would seem as incongruous as Gene Kelly keeling over during the last note of Singin’ In The Rain.
And that’s because, under the classical trappings of wu xia films, adorned with some of the most elegantly choreographed, performed, and shot martial-arts sequences the genre has ever seen, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a dance film. It’s also a wu xia film, but its singular success at the international box office likely stems from how Ang Lee was able to take the most exclusive tropes of such movies and imbue their physical fluidity with a uniquely emotional resonance, allowing his film to both respect the tradition from which it came (and the Wang Du Lu novel from which it was adapted) and appeal to Western audiences. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, violence is less about victory and defeat than it is the expression of self-image; the film tells a Chinese story, but has an indivisibly American spirit.
The first fight scene is still astonishing, in part because it doesn’t start until 15 minutes into the film. It begins with Jen (Zhang Ziyi)—the impetuous beating heart of the story, and essentially a Jane Austen heroine raised by Jet Li—stealing a revered sword called “Green Destiny.” She wears a mask over her face, but when older warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) tries to detain her, Jen’s movements betray her identity.
As the Shanghai Percussion Ensemble scores the ensuing chase with an unforgettable beat, Jen and Shu Lien engage in a fight that has all the danger of a flirtation. Neither of the two women lands much more than a single punch. The combat is more of an exploratory handshake than anything else. Lee films most of the action in gorgeous medium-wide shots, a privilege he was afforded by an unusually long rehearsal period. But he cuts to close-ups of the women’s knees as they wrap around each other and unlock, like something out of Strictly Ballroom. The Green Destiny is never unsheathed, and the most painful moment comes when Bo, a house servant, accidentally whacks himself in the head with his staff. When a genuine threat of violence is introduced—a dart that a third party shoots at Shu Lien’s head—the fight immediately ends.
The second martial-arts sequence is a group brawl in a moonlit courtyard, unique in the film in that it’s the only fight in which lives are on the line. Not coincidentally, it’s the only fight featuring Jade Fox, Jen’s mentor and the closest thing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has to a Barbossa of its own. Jen simply wants to escape an arranged marriage and live a life that isn’t determined by the gender politics of her time, but Jade Fox is her bitter Looper, poisoned by decades of misogyny. Her identity is no longer in flux—serving as both the film’s most clearly rendered villain and victim, Jade Fox has calcified into who she is. And though this fight starts out as the film’s most Broadway production, with sparring partners dipping between each other as if playing out a chaotic number from The Producers, Jade Fox doesn’t need to express herself through action; she states her purpose, and fights to kill. Only three characters die in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Jade Fox is one, and she herself kills of the other two. (Her death doesn’t even come in a fight scene, but in a hostile incident that springs from an otherwise-grounded dramatic moment.)
Discussing the film’s fight sequences, executive producer/co-writer James Schamus told The Guardian, “I knew that they were going to be expressions of relationships and meaningful. Because in most of the fights in this movie, one person really doesn't want to fight. So it’s a really interesting situation, having to make dramatic fight scenes when they are more or less than that.” The courtyard battle is the only scene in Crouching Tiger in which all parties are motivated by vengeance and fighting for blood. It’s staggeringly well-assembled, and yet also the least memorable fight in the film.
Lee allows roughly 40 minutes (!) to pass before the next martial-arts setpiece, which happens to be one of the most iconic ever staged. Jen, on the lam and now deliberately dressing as a man, stops for lunch in a countryside restaurant populated only by men. As she sips her tea, most likely reflecting on her lost love Lo—the desert bandit with whom she once shared a doomed romance that also impinged on her personal freedom—a gaggle of swinging dicks drop by her table to test her skills. All these strapping men puff out their chests and announce their monikers (“Flying Saber,” “Shining Phoenix Master Gou,” etc.) before attacking Jen. At first, she’s happy to dispatch of them with one hand, the other still cradling her tea. It’s only when the men press the point of her identity that the carnage begins.
Jen, uniquely unencumbered by gravity, dismantles everyone around her, casually inventing some immodest epithets of her own while tearing the restaurant apart. Armed with Green Destiny, she splits one man’s lip and knocks a few others over wooden bannisters, but most of her violence is characterized by the moment in which she playfully slaps an assailant on the cheeks with her fabled sword, like Beatrix Kiddo admonishing a pubescent Crazy 88 for “fucking around with yakuza.” To Jen, these men aren’t threats, they’re the chorus boys carrying her across the stage as she belts out a kick-ass proto-feminist cover of “I Feel Pretty.” Jen doesn’t become the woman she is because she defeats her opponents, she defeats her opponents because she is the woman she’s become.
The scene is a perfect illustration of what Lee claims to have gleaned from working with legendary choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping. Speaking to Indiewire at the time of the film’s release, Lee said, “The biggest thing I learned from [Yuen] is that martial-arts film has very little to do with martial arts; it’s cinema, it’s expression, it’s what’s good on screen, how you work out the shots, what’s the best angle, what’s the best way for the human body to express itself to the audience. And to me, that was great inspiration as a tool for drama.”
The fourth setpiece, an intimate duel between Jen and Shu Lien that resounds with the spirit of a frustrated mother begging her daughter to make better decisions, is like an armed Pina Bausch interpreting a scene from Gilmore Girls, circa the beginning of season five. The weapons—and there are a lot of them, as Jen destroys all Shu Lien’s armaments with swipes of the indestructible Green Destiny—are the tools with which Shu Lien tries to reason with and admonish her surrogate child. Every blade is a new tactic as she tries to get through to Jen and convince her to change her ways. Shu Lien is almost always on the offensive, and every time Jen destroys her weapon, she glares at the girl and starts over. The “argument” only ends when, in the heat of the moment, someone “says” something below the belt, something they can’t take back. In this case, it’s Jen cutting Shu Lien’s arm. Whereas so many Hollywood blockbusters have been made torpid by their stalemate fight scenes—the bit in Pirates has its virtues, the ones in The Matrix Reloaded do not—Lee and Yuen recognize that a fight isn’t a draw just because no one gets killed. They restore the dramatic potential to every kick and sword strike. The results of a duel are less important than the nuance of their movements. The actions therein are melded with their consequences.
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, violence is isolated from martial arts until combat is allowed to become less about harm than expression. That trajectory mirrors Jen’s journey from precocious thief to mournful young adult. Her evolution is cemented in the film’s astonishing final fight scene, in which Jen and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat, as the storied swordsman whose sorrow backdrops the plot) soar through the verdant leaves of a bamboo forest. The actors are at the mercy of Yuen’s wire team, so as they dive and sway through the treetops, their characters flail at each other with their blades so aimlessly that Lee soon does away with the weapons altogether. As Jen and Li Mu Bai swirl their swords around each other, Lee cuts to a frame that isolates Jen from her weapon, the girl slowly descending through the green maze with eyes wide open, as though only now understanding the value of the wisdom her elders are offering. Lee then cuts to a gorgeous close-up that appears completely divorced from reality, as Jen’s face serenely sweeps across the lens. There’s hardly another sword-touch in the film.
Early in Crouching Tiger, Jen writes Shu Lien’s name in calligraphy. The young girl moves her brush along the parchment with the pointed finesse of a fencer. The precision with which Jen draws the characters, and the way her knowing strokes cut to the inherent physicality of identification, provides the springboard from which Lee’s film bridges the gap between the neo-classicism of contemporary wu xia cinema and the old-world traditions from which it was born. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon endures in a way that few martial arts film ever have—and resonates wider than most ever will—because it connects its people to their movements in exactly the same way.
Our Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Movie Of The Week discussion ends here. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote essay on how director Ang Lee’s obsessions help decode the film’s mysteries, and the accompanying conversation about how the film fits into Lee’s filmography, and the reception to it at home and abroad. Join us next week when we take on Robert Altman’s 1971 Western, McCabe And Mrs. Miller.