I wrote over 3,000 words about Transformers last week, you guys. I’ve earned this.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Remember how big of a deal this thing was? Over a decade ago, now. Huge international hit with critics and audiences alike, caused months of Internet buzz as its release crept slowly (agonizingly slowly, in my mind at the time) across the globe and word of its greatness spread. I believe I saw it four times in the theater.
It was a movie that really wanted to have it all. It was a serious, dramatic film with heavy social themes, a mature romance and a coming-of-age story… all while still attempting to deliver the goods with fun & entertaining chop-socky action. Not everything about it works perfectly, especially re-visiting it nowadays, but for the most part it succeeds, masterfully mixing the chocolate of High-Minded Art with the peanut butter of Kickass Action.
Also of of note: this manages to be an action film packed with thrilling fights even though “beat the bad guy(s)” is not really a major plot objective. In fact, the one genuinely villainous character is probably the least physically powerful of the principals. Here, the fights are usually about other things, mostly the expression of emotion– something the characters are otherwise forbidden to do by their society’s rigid rules and codes.
1) Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu (round one)
- Yu Shu Lien: a veteran warrior and master martial artist, approaching middle age. Played by Michelle Yeoh, who herself was an accomplished actress in various kung fu flicks by this point, not to mention a former ballet dancer and beauty queen.
- Armed with: naught but her mad skillz, yo.
- Jen Yu, the young daughter (late teens or so) of a rich aristocrat. Though we’re nominally not supposed to know it’s her yet because she’s in a “disguise” that’s only slightly more effective than Clark Kent’s, but she does definitely strike a cool figure in all that black ninja gear. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
- Armed with: she has stolen the movie’s plot-instigating “Green Destiny” sword, but it doesn’t come into play here. She is however skilled in the martial arts of the “Wudan” school, the advanced techniques of which allow her to be even floatier than the rest of the film’s fighters– something Shu Lien deduces quickly.
There’s also Bo, a guard, who tangles briefly with Jen early in the sequence, but we’ll get to him later.
The Setup: Shu Lien and Jen have met and done some light bonding earlier at the house of their mutual acquaintance Sir Te. Rich girl Jen has been established to be unhappy with her circumstances and envies the “free” lifestyle of impoverished adventurer Shu Lien, unaware that the lower classes have rules they must abide by as well.
Sir Te is guarding the Green Destiny, the favored weapon of Shu Lien’s friend and legendary warrior Li Mu Bai, who is seeking to retire… though the much-ballyhooed Sir Te seems to be an odd choice for safeguarding the sword, since his “security” seems to be a locked door and a single wandering guard who’s fairly useless. Jen has decided to steal the sword late at night, apparently as a short-sighted act of rebellion (most of the film’s plot hinges on her impulsive & chaotic decisions, really) and does so easily but as she glides over the rooftops to escape, she’s confronted by Shu Lien, who wants it back. They fight it out.
The Fight: First of all, there is a sweeeeeet drum score that goes over the entire sequence, stirring up when black-suited Jen initially sneaks onto the premises and abruptly stopping after she makes good her final escape. The tempo fluctuates constantly throughout, all light & mischievous at the beginning as smoothly nabs the sword & smacks around the hapless Bo, picking up pace gradually as Shu Lien spars with & pursues her, then finally erupting into a thudding, lightning-fast percussion as the last and most intense portion of the fight commences. The whole thing is expertly timed and beautifully complements the entire sequence, lending the onscreen action even more rhythmic grace than it already had. Great credit is due to classical composer Tan Dun, who scored the film, and director Ang Lee, who surely worked closely with him to give this scene its signature sound.
That onscreen action isn’t messing around either, though. The two women’s battle escalates in fits & starts as Shu Lien chases Jen throughout the quiet city, and at first Jen is more interested in getting away than she is in fighting back. Another wrinkle is added by the fact that despite Shu Lien’s experience, Jen’s Wudan training allow her to (quite literally) defy gravity much better than her pursuer can, so while the younger woman can simply propel herself directly to the rooftops, Shu Lien has to find more inventive ways to keep up, such as building her own momentum by leap-frogging off walls or taking Jen down with projectiles. As the fight continues the older woman even keeps things more grounded by repeatedly yanking her opponent down via her shoulders, belt, and feet.
One interruption in the chase involves Jen getting briefly delayed by a father & daughter pair of fighters who mistake the disguised girl for the criminal Jade Fox, who we will later they’ve been hunting for. Although the thief quickly escapes the two, this is where Bo first meets them, which will be important later.
Jen and Shu Lien’s confrontation comes to a head in an open courtyard, the ferocity of their fight ratcheting up just as the music does. It is, in a word, gorgeous.
Now they just go nuts, with all the kicking and the punching and the jumping and the glavin. So fast you can barely keep up, but it never looks over-choreographed. It’s not a completely even contest: Yu Shu Lien is clearly the superior fighter here, but it’s also clear that Jen is making her work for it. It’s hard to communicate that kind of power balance in a fight, and commendable when the filmmakers pull it off. Also, Lee and his cinematographer Peter Pau manage to film the clash from all sorts of angles, but the camera is never too busy or ostentatious so as to distract from the combat (plotted out by Hong Kong legend Yuen Wo Ping).
Shu Lien gradually begins to take control of the battle and has her opponent on the ropes, when she is interrupted by mysterious figure firing a dart at her from behind. The veteran fighter catches the projectile, but it’s enough distraction for Jen to collect herself and whoosh away for good. Shu Lien is left standing alone, and a quick-cut to a wide shot of the empty courtyard excellently underscores her frustration just as the music hits a crescendo and halts. Rumor has it that preview screenings packed with jaded film critics burst into applause at the conclusion of this scene. I believe it.
Everything works. The action builds quickly while still having enough brief interludes to keep from being repetitive. The combatants move with fluid grace. And oh my goodness that music. This was a bold opening move from Ang Lee and a strong statement of purpose for the movie. It’s firing on all cylinders and it’s unapologetically awesome.
Coming Attractions: A certain foxy lady.