I discovered Chinese wuxia films—epic martial arts fantasies often distinguished by supernatural story elements and gravity-defying acrobatics—just a few years before word came around that Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee was going to do a wuxia movie of his own. The news was slightly incredible. Wuxia is a great genre, but its standout examples, at least to Western audiences, tended to be over-the-top spectacles that were a lot of fun but would never be confused with great cinema. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was billed as a martial arts epic, a cross-cultural epic, and Oscar-worthy cinema. That’s the cinematic equivalent of a unicorn. A martial arts movie worthy of serious consideration? This, I had to see. Plenty of folks agreed with me; when the movie came out in 2000, it swiftly became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. history. And with good reason, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not just one of the finest martial arts movies I’ve ever seen, it’s just an outstanding story on its own, whether or not you derive glee from seeing flying warriors cross swords in mid-air.
The story takes place in a mythic version of 18th century China. The great Wudang hero Li Mu Bai has decided to retire from the warrior life, and askes his long-time friend—and swordswoman of no small skill—Yu Shu Lien, to deliver his legendary sword, Green Destiny, into safe hands in Beijing. The delivery of the sword gives Mu Bai and Shu Lien an opportunity to rekindle long-held romantic feelings for each other, but that gets put on hold when an old villain named Gray Fox attempts to steal Green Destiny. Gray Fox killed Mu Bai’s master long ago, and delivering justice to Gray Fox is the one unresolved task on Mu Bai’s record. So, he goes into battle once more to put his master’s spirit at peace. Only he will not face Gray Fox alone; she has trained a powerful young apprentice of her own—a wayward noblewoman named Jen Yu. Jen’s own allegiance to Gray Fox is tenuous, however. Resentful of the limits Gray Fox has put on her, Jen has studied Wudang martial arts techniques in secret and surpassed her master in skill, something Gray Fox sees as treachery. Jen’s aim is to steal Green Destiny, run away from her arranged marriage, and live a life of her own design. As Mu Bai, Shu Lien, Gray Fox and Jen’s various paths all intertwine, the stage sets for a final confrontation that will resolve long-standing obligations and vendettas alike as the weight of the past and the promise of the future collide.
This is a story of complex tapestry of personal relationships, spectacular martial arts sequences, and a vision of mythic China drawn with compelling detail and color. Its themes of love, honor, justice, duty, passion and freedom cross but never tangle, creating a story that at first comes off as a beautifully told tale of star-crossed martial artists battling over matters of justice and passion. But there is much more to this one, and the desire to revisit it again and again for its phenomenal fight scenes slyly allows its deeper qualities to sink in. There is a poetic quality throughout the narrative, a heartfelt meditation on what it means to live by obligations greater than oneself, and why seeking instant gratification and seeking what is worthy often are not the same thing.
One of my favorite themes here is that of the tension between student and master, and what it means for a master to be surpassed by the protégé. In the world of martial arts, especially, the bond between student and teacher is a sacred one. And in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon we see what can happen when that relationship is abused…and what happens when it is revered. One path leads to heroism. The other leads to a life of torment. We see this most in the character of Jen, who may have gained great skill at the hands of Gray Fox but has no idea what she is supposed to do with it. Late in the movie, she wanders into an inn and picks a fight with a large number of roving warriors. She emerges triumphant, but the victory means nothing to her. It has only wrought damage, and given her no satisfaction. And why should it? She descends from a teacher who is happy to teach, but only so long as the student does not surpass her. That is not teaching to better the student. That is doing it to serve one’s ego. Mu Bai also offers Jen a chance to be his pupil, and she rejects it, knowing that to do so would mean to surrender what little freedom she currently enjoys. She is not yet beyond redemption, but she is dangerously close to what Mu Bai describes as a “poisoned soul.”
This brings us to the movie’s moment of truth, in which Shu Lien confronts Jen, who has at last stolen Green Destiny. Yu can’t let Jen leave without it, and has a mind to give this kid the firm spanking she so badly deserves. Jen isn’t about to let anyone tell her what to do, not when she has the world’s deadliest weapon in her grip. The two face off, and before their steel clashes, Shu Lien notes that they could have been great friends. They still could be; the choice is Jen’s. Jen doesn’t even hear it. What follows is one of my favorite fight scenes of all time. But what makes it great isn’t so much the display of skill, but the stakes involved: to walk a path of obligation, or to walk a path a selfishness. And while the battle is a fierce one, its outcome never really is in doubt. In a world of honor, there is only one path to greatness.