Sunday, 5 October 2008

I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you...

No 497 - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Director - Ang Lee

This film slightly splits me in 2. I think the wushu style is beautiful and elegant but I think it slightly 'cheats' and therefore the martial arts elements are slightly cheapened. The idea of wushu (brought to us by our good friends at Wikipedia) is that movements are exaggerated and enhanced with extra jumps and more theatrical movements. This creates a style which is more about aesthetic and theatrical beauty than producing an actual practical fighting style. I think this also can be used to describe Ang Lee's 'Martial Art-House' classic.

There is no denying that Crouching Tiger is a beautiful film. The framing is stunning, with gorgeous vistas of forests, mountain and desert. The fight scenes are an aerial ballet which are stunning to behold - even though they may not be as easy to accept as real due to so many fantastical elements in this style which sometimes make it impossible not to think of the wire work involved.
The problem is, that this film is so aesthetically oriented. This is something that I believe will be a re-occurring problem within this list (I'm saving the brunt of my argument for Sin City) however it seems the story was secondary to the set pieces and visual dynamic of the film.

My housemate Toby thinks that the problem is cultural. The plot for CTHD is very simplistic and probably based around elements from ancient Chinese tales and folklore. It means that not much time has to be spent on plot development as the idea of heroes and legendary weapons and fighting styles are already a well known part of that culture's history. For a western audience it becomes slightly harder to follow the film when facing so many new ideas to integrate within the story. Luckily the story is relatively simplistic (the crux being a sword gets stolen several times and two warriors are after it) which helps.

It is almost as if the central plot is the least important aspect of the film. Using it as a catalyst to explore the subplots - namely the relationships between the 2 pairings. This is a love story framed around a loose story of honour and vengeance with some truly magical set pieces. And the set pieces are truly breathtaking at times:
When it was released, everyone spoke about the impressive bamboo fight scene. Whilst it is certainly impressive the 'floating on air' aspect of the film is too obviously wire work to convince me and I therefore feel very much alienated from the scene. My ability to suspend disbelief is ruined by those little floaty moments. However... the fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in the training hall is amazing. The elegant way the characters bounce off Walls and float up to the ceiling during the fight as well as the skilled way that Michelle Yeoh's character changes weapon so many times are the perfect examples of how the fantastical wushu fight scenes should be (in my head).

In fact - when it comes to amazing elegance and fighting there is only one person I can mention. Chow Yun Fat. His character (Master Li Mu Bai) is absolutely perfect. He is a true zen fighter. Part monk, part warrior - As comfortable meditating in a temple as he is on the battle field. his style is graceful and efficient. Almost lazy in his simplicity. No matter how frantic his opponent gets, Li Mu Bai's attack style is a gentle flowing flick of his weapon arm. The his rest of body staying still - yet relaxed. He is never vexxed and can fight off anything. From ill tempered swords men to a barrage of poisoned darts. He stays philosophical to the very last believing in the importance of patience and meditation and wanting to stow his sword away so he can live out the rest of his life in peace. Sadly he just isn't given the chance to stop and he is forced into combat situations. Luckily he is an amazing fighter and reluctantly triumphs through each battle.
He is easily the best character in this film.

And finally - let me end on a shallow note. It is nice for a film to be visually opulent and aesthetically unique. It is much nicer when they also throw in some eye candy. And Zhang Ziyi is very very pretty.


PhilH said...

I watched Crouching Tiger on DVD shortly after seeing House of Flying Daggers in the cinema, and I found it very dull. It looked very impressive, but there's little else I remember about it. Which was disappointing for a film which developed so much hype.

Flying Daggers was vastly superior. I still haven't seen most of the similarly styled that followed on from it though, so I have no judgment on them.

Captain James Amazing said...

My favourite is Hero because it has the best Plot. Whilst the visuals in Wushu films are impressive I think the plots leave a lot to be desired. Whereas Hero actually had quite a good little plot - check it out

Northwind said...

I'd have to a degree. I loved Hidden Dragon, just as a fun movie. I also loved the idea of WuXia being brought to mass audiences. Hero's color-thing was amazing. But when it comes to martial arts, the wire-work, etc. is fun, however being a traditional Chinese martial artist myself, I much prefer some good ole choreography that incorporates actual sequences, etc.

EK Biddle Esq said...

Here I am. 'Gonna read your blog & steal your knowledge'.
I liked Crouching Tiger, I appreciated that it was the first of a new wave in bringing Wuxia to western audiences. But I agree that it tends not to be as impressive as 'realistic' choreographed fighting. Plus it paled to that of some of the epics of the genre, like 'The Water Margin' (which I strongly recommend) or 'Twin Warriors', which while a little crappy, holds a sentimental place in my heart as one of my early kung-fu loves. I think thats just it though, Crouching Tiger is quite good, but only so popular in that it was the first of its ilk that most (western) people had seen & so sticks out as being memorable.
I also agree with Toby that the glossing over of concepts & characters reasoning happens a lot in Asian fantasy cinema. Basically every is assumed to be fully knowledgeable of Wong Fei Hung, Journey To The West & such, that form such a staple of their fantasy history that their foundations are never gone over. It's taken me years & weeks, of nit months worth of watching to get to grips with all the referencing (or non-referencing). Which I would argue is a massive flaw in filmaking if it didn't make me feel so geekily accomplished.

EK Biddle Esq said...

Oh & what do you mean you're saving that argument for Sin City!?
If you hurt a hair on that films head I'll burn all your ties.

P.s: Rip Superman a new one.