Saturday, August 16, 2008

Review - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2001 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation
2001 Nebula Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I enjoy wuxia films quite a bit. I used to order them from Hong Kong before the Chinese took it back (and after they took it back I suppose); they appear to be legitimate copies but when you're ordering movies from Hong Kong it doesn't seem likely. I especially enjoy those films from about the mid-eighties to the early-ninties when the filmmakers had the craft down well enough to make things look good despite working from budgets that would make Roger Corman throw in the towel. They have a kind of manic style born from the unique combonation of low budget filmmaking and having a crew capable of performing the complex staging. For the most part older films are a little too static and more recent ones have taken too many tricks from Hollywood.

So when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released I was ammused by the entertainment coverage by people who suddenly realized that Chinese action movies existed and could be good. People went to it for the wire-fu action sequences but there is a great movie within them as well.

A shao lin master is retiring from his fighting ways to seek peace and as part of that he is turning his indestructable sword over to a friend for safe keeping. Shortly after being being handed over it is stolen by a young woman exceptionally skilled in martial arts. She's the daughter of a wealthy family who sought out the knowledge for excitement but does not know the wisdom that should have come with the training. The master finds her and recovers the sword he attempts to teach her these before her life goes down a path of self-destruction.

In fairness I think if you asked three different people what the plot of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was you'd get three different answers. To me the film is about the master/student relationship and trying to get Buddhist philosophy through to the girl but others might cast the film in the light of the romantic plots or the just the action. The thing about the movie is that it is deep. There's multiple layers of meaning in it and many of them are subtle.

It's also a beautifully shot movie, most memorably toward the end where there is a confrontation atop a bamboo forest. The film is firmly in the style of the wuxia film but at the same time there's an exceptional skill in the cinematography that you rarely see in anything. It's more than the landscape, it's in how characters are framed and focused. Peter Pau really deserved the academy award for cinematography he won for this movie.

And speaking of academy awards, Tan Dun's score is an exceptional work of minimalism. In a major Hollywood production the music would be overwelming but his choice is a more mournful sound even when it picks up for the action scenes. It gives the movie a radically different feeling than what you normally find.

I can't comment on the acting since while it seems fine to me I also know that what seems fine to someone who doesn't speak the language sounds wildly exagerated to someone who does. So I will leave it at simply, "Seems fine to me."

For the first Hugo award given in any category to a foreign language work Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is spectacular. It's the kind of movie I wish there would be more of rather than one every four or five years: the action movie that perfectly blends in a quality story and spectacular visual sense.