Beauty more than skin deep
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is mainly known for its cinematography and stylized, highly arial fight sequences. To me, these things are very much secondary to the story and the characters, the foundation for any great film.
We wait some time for the first battle sequence, and this is a good thing. Half the main characters are introduced to us here in a sequence that sets the pace of the story and the seriousness with which our heroes, Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien, lead their lives. Mu Bai gives Shu Lien his sword, the Green Destiny, to take as a gift to Sir Te. She does so, though Te refuses to accept ownership, only keeping the sword as a matter of safeguarding it for Li Mu Bai. The noble Yu family is staying with Te at this time, and Shu Lien befriends their young daughter, Jen, who has an interesting way about her. Shortly thereafter, despite Te's assurances, the Green Destiny is stolen by a masked figure. Shu Lien chases and fights with this figure, but fails to recover the sword.
This is where the film starts getting interesting, for the sword has been stolen by Jen Yu, and Shu Lien becomes sure of this soon enough. We get to witness this strange dance of honor from Shu Lien, and atypical boldness from Jen, against her well-raised, public face.
Jen was trained by the legendary Jade Fox, who is responsible for many deaths, including Mu Bai's master - which relates to why he and Shu Lien have been kept apart. We also learn, through an extended flashback, that Jen fell in love with Long, a nomadic thief she encountered while travelling in the desert. His theft of her comb resulted in one of the best chase/fight sequences of the film. Once the mutual respect and admiration kicked in, things took their course. But Jen had to return to her family, though the two promised to be together again someday.
After stealing the Green Destiny, Jen flees an arranged marriage and starts tearing up the countryside. Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien follow the trail, and also keep an eye out for Jade Fox, who has, not coincidently, been causing trouble lately too.
The cinematography is truly beautiful, the colors rich, and the capture of emotion and movement a wonder. Each moment flows into the next, especially in the fight sequences, when they come so rapid-fire you shouldn't blink.
The flying, acrobatic fighting style seems a little silly, to be honest. I realize the motivation is to place an aura over the characters, like something out of legends, that they are truly among the best trained folk out there. Yet, the action is somewhat comic and distracting. If it were toned down, and the less likely bits removed, I'd find all the jumping around more acceptable. Yet, this is really only a superficial part of the movie - the fighting is done well enough, and there are other aspects that are nailed down so tightly, I really don't mind the screwy physics going on.
The deeper theme of this film is about love that is not meant to be. Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien have been kept apart by honor for many years, and just as they start expressing their feelings to each other, disaster strikes for them. Jen and Long have been separated for many years, and Long shows up just as Jen is getting married to someone she has no interest in. Even Jade Fox, the only clearly bad, perhaps even evil, character here, turns out to be heartbroken by her pupil's lack of loyalty to her. Every action among the main characters is somehow motivated by their feelings, and this is translated brilliantly onto the screen in each moment. That's why this film deserves the praise it receives.
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