I think it might be helpful if I briefly went over the plot (which DID seem like it was a section of a much longer story ... the movie might have benefitted from a prequel/sequel or two) and its major components. There's this guy Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), and he has a sword the Green Destiny. The sword is to him like Excalibur was to Arthur. Li belongs to a class of society the translators of the film call the "Giang Hu underworld," which isn't really an adequate translation. It's not an underworld, it's a very visible part of Chinese society that everyone knows and talks about. If you belong to the Giang Hu it means you know some school of Kung Fu, that you've been trained by a master to fight in the style dictated by a certain school. You become part of a "clan" (please, at this point, do not visualize some kid selling dope on the street). Members of the clan pass on their unique school of Kung Fu by the master-apprentice system. The master-apprentice bond and the bond between members of the clan, incidentally, is a bond of utmost importance in the Giang Hu. Betrayal is an offense punishable by death and disgrace. If your master is murdered, it is your duty to avenge his death (this was seen in the movie). Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) talks about the ways of Giang Hu in the film as well. Since the Giang Hu has been around for centuries, there are naturally feuds and vendettas going on between clans. Kung Fu secrets stolen, a master murdered, stuff like that, things not unlike Greek mythology. All the tradition, the bloodshed accumulates over centuries to produce the Giang Hu society seen in the film. It's a society that has been the inspiration for many novels, and of course many movies. Clans become sworn enemies, clans become allies; secrets are traded, rumors are spread, heroes are born, and villains are produced. And so on and so forth. It's perceivable how someone outside of Giang Hu can view it with a certain degree of awe and with certain misconceptions, kind of like how we perceive the mafia. Anyway, Li's among the Giang Hu, and he's part of the Wudan Clan (or Wu Tang Clan if you like the group). He's apparently one of the best in his clan with the Kung Fu as well. As we learn, his master was murdered by Jade Fox who stole the clan's Kung Fu secrets and tried to learn from its manual. Li is supposed to avenge his master's death, but he kinda wants to call it quits from bloodshed, so he attempts to do so by giving up his weapon, the Green Destiny. It's stolen by Jade Fox's apprentice Jen, and this triggers a chain reaction which results in confrontations between the righteous Wudan Clan members Li and Shu Lien and the ones who are trying to learn their secrets Jade Fox and Jen. Are you dizzy yet? CTHD is successful because it transports us back to that time in China, the time of the Giang Hu, of crouching tigers and hidden dragons. It is a vision of time past, fantastical yet appealing because we want it to be true. We want that kind of love to exist.
I wish I could personally translate this movie for everyone who ever sees it. It's just so much richer an experience if you can understand and perceive the poetry of the language directly. So much of what the characters express get lost in the no-nonsense style of translation. Just see what happens if you try to translate Shakespeare's sonnets into Chinese or something. The movie's scenes sometimes unfold like a scroll revealing an ancient Chinese painting. People don't really talk like the characters do in the movie, but measured speech that holds nuanced meaning and subtle beauty complements the film's physical beauty perfectly, as iambic pentameter goes along with the Elizabethan stage. Ang Lee's film is capable of the inert beauty of language as well as the active beauty of Kung Fu, and the emergent portrait is one of the highest art achievable in cinema.
There are so many ways in which this film appeals to me. Everyone loves the Kung Fu, sure, and there's nothing cooler than watching two women kick each other's asses or Jen kicking everyone else's asses. Look no further for girl power. While each fight sequence was spectacular, there were ones that Lee distinguished from the rest with his poetic vision of the Giang Hu world: the characters leaping unbelievably gracefully over lakes, the dancing duels on treetops. Even the "ordinary" sequences are great in comparison to your normal everyday fight scene. They are choreographed with astonishing beauty and grace. Sometimes you forget that it's a matter of life and death because the characters seem to be dancing on a stage. The film's settings--the bustling Peking, the ethereal forests, the lonely prairies of western China--are exotic and beautiful. I liked the relationships between characters, especially the platonic one between Li and Shu Lien that parallels the one between Mulder and Scully (yes, another X-Files reference). I was reminded of the trailer for "The House of Mirth" I saw before the film. Edith Wharton's novel depicts a time and place, early 20th century New York City, where a porcelain society places constraints on how individuals should act. In CTHD, too, there are a variety of restrictions, some tangible some intangible. Jen can't be with Lo because her parents are marrying her off for political reasons, and Li can't be with Shu Lien because Shu Lien's fiance gave his life for Li's. And it is precisely this chasm that causes much of the pain and heartache in CTHD. Li and Shu Lien, like Mulder and Scully, are doomed to remain platonic, to always tread lightly on broken glass because they are unwilling to betray the memory of a friend. And Li took this inhibition with him to the grave. Much of this sadness permeates the film, the sense of what-might-have-been and what-if. Li and Shu Lien also muse about life in the Giang Hu. They grew up in it, and yet they are weary; while Jen grew up thirsting for the adventure of the Giang Hu instead of a dreary life as an aristocrat's wife. Where these two urges intersected tragedy ensued. There are so many unspoken desires and broken dreams: Jade Fox's desire for an apprentice and perhaps a daughter, Jen's childish and greedy desire to learn all the secrets of the Wudan, Lo's obstinate love toward Jane. All of these things came up empty, turned out to be bubbles in the ephemeral Giang Hu world. Ultimately, what the film conveys is a sense of destiny as a relentless whirlpool that pulls everyone towards its tumultuous center. The characters in the film may have strong desires, but ultimately they have no true control over their destinies. Green Destiny has not brought for Li the happiness and serenity he desired, and Jen's selfish thirst for knowledge only caused meaningless bloodshed and ultimately cost her her own life. This is why the film is primarily about intangible emotions rather than an action film about fight sequences. The active elements in the story provide cinematic beauty, but it is what hasn't been voiced--between the characters and between storyteller and audience--that constricts our throats and moistens our eye rims.
Rating: A- (First viewing, 12/27/00)