Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 6 of 6)

In which our protagonists do their best Cathy Rigby.

Which is odd, because there’s not a lot of happy thoughts in this movie.

6) Li Mu Bai vs Jen Yu (round three)

The Fighters:

  • Li Mu Bai. Played by Chow Yun “I’ve heard all the jokes there are about my name, thank you” Fat.
    • Armed with: a normal taijijian.
  • Jen Yu, who’s had quite a busy day indeed. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: Green Destiny, of course.

The Setup: This picks up right after the conclusion of the previous fight. Jen, being a sore loser, rejects Yu Shu Lien’s mercy and slashes her across the arm, just in time for Li Mu Bai to arrive. She flies away (this is a running theme for her) with LMB in pursuit. He catches up to her in a picturesque bamboo forest.

The Fight: It’s certainly different, a definite change of pace. They spent most of it going on top of or in & out of the trees. The actual element of “fighting” has been dialed down to a bare minimum (occasionally their swords meet), but rather than the intense physicality of the previous battle now the staging is given over to the complicated wirework.

Complicated indeed; this must have been quite the pain in the neck to block out and execute. Sometimes, it looks pretty cool:

And then sometimes, it doesn’t. Because the precariously perched participants often look less like warriors whose mystical powers can make their bodies lighter than air… and sometimes they just look like actors who are awkwardly being held up by wires:

This is a problem with a lot of wire fu movies, or at least a problem I have with them: use it too much or inappropriately and it’s more cheesy than exciting (I think Iron Monkey is about as boring as watching paint dry, for instance). For the most part this is a film that uses its wires judiciously, to enhance rather than replace the action. But this fight goes a bit in the other direction.

Which, to be fair, is a lofty goal. After all, just a few minutes previous we had an incredibly kinetic, ground-based showdown. Trying to do one of those again would not just be repetitive, but a foregone conclusion: there’s no question that Li Mu Bai could destroy Jen effortlessly if he really wanted to. Instead, this floaty “fight” is more about two characters probing at each other and trying to make a connection. The music, dying down to mostly a lot of soothing string work, is rather supportive of this approach. And there’s the occasional shot like this that is just downright breathtaking:

Overall I’d say this fight alternates between silly and beautiful, but never at any point is it exciting. Breathtaking, to be sure, and even a few amusing bits as Mu Bai’s simple leg work sends Jen flying from her bamboo perch, or at the end when she challenges him to take Green Destiny away from her “in three moves” and he smirks and seizes it in one. She remains insolent, so he tosses the sword down a nearby waterfall, which she foolishly dives after; her subsequent abduction by Jade Fox marks the end of the encounter.

(Note: from here the fight scenes are effectively over. There is a rather cool bit later in which the Fox ends up on the receiving end of Li Mu Bai’s sword, but it’s so brief as to not warrant inclusion.)

I can’t fault it from a dramatic or narrative standpoint, necessarily. However, as an action sequence, it’s lacking. Still… it IS awful purty.

Grade: B-

Goodbye, Crouching Tiger. You weren’t always perfect, but you were real good to me.

Coming Attractions:

Advertisements

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 5 of 6)

Show-stopper.

oh em gee

5) Yu Shu Lien vs Jen Yu (round two)

The Fighters:

  • Yu Shu Lien. Played by Michelle Yeoh.
    • Armed with: a Dao (saber that can be split into two smaller blades), a spear, dual hook swords, a metal club, and a broad sword. In that order. She also grabs a huge Monk’s Spade at one point but it turns out to be too heavy for her to lift.
  • Jen Yu. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: the Green Destiny.

The Setup: Turns out life’s not so fun for a young runaway leaving all she knew behind, and after her awesome adventures at the inn full of kung fu idiots, Jen goes running to her “big sister” Yu Shu Lien at her local… headquarters? Dojo? Safe house? Anyway she’s there awaiting the arrival of Li Mu Bai, who will be “sleeping over,” wink wink nudge nudge.

After some polite talk, Shu Lien tells her to go to Wudan Mountain, where her and Mu Bai have secretly hidden dragon Lo, Jen’s bandit ex-boyfriend. The news of these two pulling strings behind her back shocks Jen and she lashes out, once again wary of people manipulating & controlling her. At this point Shu Lien, who was really only trying to help, has had about enough of the young lady’s attitude, and fires back angrily, demanding the sword. Jen tries to storm out, but the older woman stops her in the open gym area, telling everyone else in the household to leave… and lock the doors.

There’s more to this upcoming throwdown than just reclaiming the sword and Jen’s snit, though. Jen is angry not just at Shu Lien but at everyone in her life who’s been pressuring her, and is also eager to prove herself. Shu Lien’s long-simmering feelings for Li Mu Bai (which are mutual, but they’ve denied themselves each other out of respect to her old fiancee dying to save LMB) have led to jealousy over the attention he’s been showing to this troublesome girl. These women are frustrated all over about the freedom they’ve long been denied, and that frustration is about to explode like dynamite. Awesome, sexy dynamite.

The Fight: is amazing. This is generally considered the centerpiece of the movie– it’s the scene all over the ads, promotional artwork and even the DVD menus– and it’s easy to see why.

Though both combatants are trying much harder than in their previous fight, the power balance is still roughly the same: Jen is flashy and talented but ultimately can’t hold against Shu Lien’s determination and years of experience. The only difference now is the weapons: Yu Shu Lien basically becomes a one-woman armory in the fight against Jen, or more accurately against Jen and the invincible Green Destiny. The veteran warrior grabs weapon after weapon to use against the legendary sword, and even though she fights excellently, each new implement eventually breaks against the blade’s might. (It’s clear that Shu Lien still could beat Jen, if she saw her as an enemy rather than a rival or annoyance and genuinely wanted to kill her. She had chances.)

“Want a free nose job?”

This of course presents opportunity for a marvelous amount of variety, especially for a two-person battle, and Yuen Wo Ping clearly had a blast plotting it out. Each new weapon that’s introduced slightly modifies the fighting style and picks up the overall pace. Ang Lee’s camera jumps around giddily, framing the combatants from up close, far away, and even overhead… but never confusingly, and always with an emphasis on the action rather than the camerawork itself.

For once, Tan Dun’s music is not terribly noteworthy but it’s still fun and serviceable, accenting the scene appropriately; my personal favorite touch is the deep bass and strings that play up when Shu Lien brings her broadsword into frame. The sound design is tops, perfectly selling every single clash of blades and leaping whoosh.

Like this one.

Later on, Shu Lien gives voice to what the audience is thinking: “Without Green Destiny, you are nothing.” Jen, ever the brat, of course dismisses the barb with unearned arrogance and presses the fight on. When the older woman goes to town on her with the broadsword it too ends up sliced in half by the emerald blade, but Shu Lien is still able to bring the remaining stump to a halt within an inch of Jen’s exposed neck. Jen fails to accept defeat & mercy gracefully, but she loses nonetheless.

Feels strange to say so little about this fight whereas I’ve talked forever about so many others, but sometimes, there’s not much left to say. This is everything a fight scene should be: smart, smooth, creative, packed with emotion, complex but natural, fast and furious. Even a few pinches of subdued humor. There is still plenty left in the film, both in terms of fighting and of the plot being resolved, but after this barn-burner the movie’s pretty much over.

Grade: A+

Coming Attractions: Let’s have a walk in the trees.

Bamboo-zled

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 4 or 6)

In which pretty much everyone is in over their heads.

Yep, you too.

4) Jen Yu vs Various Martial Artists

The Fighters:

  • Jen Yu, having ditched her cool black outfit in favor of a man’s clothes. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: the Green Destiny and one heck of an attitude.
  • A whole restaurant full of professional (though they come off more like amateurs against Jen’s Wudan skills) warriors. They have names like Monk Jing, Shining Phoenix Mountain Gou, and Iron Arm Mi. Played by various actors and stunt men.
    • Armed with: again, a wide variety. Swords, clubs, staffs, and one guy has iron bracelets under his sleeves. If you guessed that that guy is the one called “Iron Arm Mi,” you win a cookie.

The Setup: Fleeing from both her wedding and the smothering attentions of her erstwhile bandit paramour, Jen has re-stolen the Green Destiny and hit the road. Disguised as a rather feminine-looking man, she’s shown up at a restaurant/inn, but between her ostentatious sword and Too Cool For School demeanor, she’s attracted some unwanted attention. Soon enough word gets out about this fresh fish, and a whole soccer team’s worth of kung fu fighters shows up to teach her a lesson. Iron Arm Mi seems to be the alpha dog of the group and he takes the lead in talking to her (“I’ve got the death sentence in twelve systems” he doesn’t say, but might as well), but she disrespects him until he’s provoked into attacking…

The Fight: … at which point she defends herself and sends him flying, though not before embarrassing him and revealing his hidden armaments. After some more talk and the irritating coincidence of one of the other fighters sharing a name with Jen’s new husband, she basically goes nuts and attacks them all in a frenzy.

“Frenzy” being the operative word here. Jen is all over the place and not shy at all about using her acrobatic Wudan powers. Between her skills and powerful blade she’s basically unstoppable; there’s never really any sense that she’s in danger during the course of the fight.

It is, however, a LOT of fun. Jen is just a whirling dervish of destruction, taking on opponents from all sides, flitting in & out of various rooms and up & down inside the multi-story building. The building itself isn’t spared from her fury, either, as she bashes opponents against furniture and through walls. For the most part the fights here have been one-on-one contests of skill (even the six-person brawl that was Fight #2 is basically just a series of duels with alternating partners), so it’s nice to see the movie embrace the other action tradition– that of the lone warrior mowing down an army of adversaries. Her blows here are purposely non-lethal, too, so aside from the minor scars and property damage this is a guilt-free romp.

It’s also a welcome break from the seriousness that hangs over much of the rest of the film; as I talked about before, most of the fighting in the movie is about the expression of emotion, and in this case, it’s Jen being fully free and empowered– she is kung fu woman, hear her roar. Her dialogue and ostentatious theatrical flair (she even ends the fight with a dramatic pose) clearly show Jen’s playing out a fantasy. She has no real long-term plans and her playing at Vagabond Warrior Girl can’t last for  long, but she’ll enjoy her freedom while it lasts.

At one point, Jen declares she is “the Invincible Sword Goddess.” Which just about says it all.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: The best thing.

Ladies.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 3 of 6)

A blessedly small-scale scrap after last time’s chaos.

3) Li Mu Bai vs Jen Yu (round two)

The Fighters:

  • Li Mu Bai, the legendary etc etc. Played by Chow Yun Freaking Fat.
    • Armed with: his own Green Destiny sword, though he doesn’t really use it against her as such. Also, a stick.
  • Jen Yu, a very confused young girl. Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: a standard taijijian. Man, look at all the dots that word has.

The Setup: After some not-so-subtle hints to her civilian identity from Yu Shu Lien, Jen decides to secretly return the sword that caused all this trouble. After doing so she runs into Li Mu Bai, who’d been waiting for her. He’s intrigued with her abilities and, we later learn, is concerned about how much influence Jade Fox has had on her. He pursues her to a temple and offers to train her, but Jen, chafing at years of repression and an upcoming arranged marriage, is in no mood to call any man “master.” She opts to start attacking him instead, which is unwise– this guy’s one hard-boiled killer who could give her a better tomorrow.

The Fight: Li Mu Bai demonstrates his superiority by parrying all her blows without even removing Green Destiny from its sheath, and lands several strikes on her that would have been crippling or even lethal if they’d been with an actual blade. She continues to act stubborn in the face of a clear master, so he gives her a real shock by unsheathing Green Destiny and breaking off a chunk of her sword in one single move. “Real sharpness comes without effort!” he declares. Okay, sure.

He chases her out front and continues to fight her, this time defeating her sword strikes with a simple stick he finds on the ground. All the while he’s spouting fortune cookie soundbites at her: “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint.” Whether you think it’s empty-headed pseudo-philosophy or genuine Deep Thoughts, it’s still quite amusing to watch, and even more impressive that Chow was able to pull off the choreography while delivering complicated dialogue in a language he barely understood; supposedly native Mandarin Chinese speakers laugh their butts off at how silly Chow and Yeoh (who could only speak the Cantonese dialect before) sound in this movie. Once again, being an ignorant foreign devil helps me enjoy something more. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Anyway, he’s trying to teach her humility but all she gets is frustrated. Even after the impromptu training session ends (with the girl being disarmed), she’s not having any of this, and takes off.

As fights go, it’s fairly brief, somewhat inconsequential, and one combatant isn’t trying to “win” so much as he’s trying to get the other person’s attention. Still, it’s long & complex enough that it was worthy of inclusion and some manner of discussion.

Light as it is, it works all right, even if it’s not particularly outstanding. It accomplishes everything it needs to. And, even though it comes not too long after the previous setpiece, it’s a welcome snack because there’s soon going to be a loooooong stretch of this movie without any real fight scenes to speak of. It’s not going to be boring for the next 30 minutes or so, by any means; intrigue and excitement (both of the physical and of the, ahem, “romantic” kind) aplenty await, but it is a while before the movie returns to the chop-socky portion of its plot.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: Jen runs away from home and manages to immediately find herself in a bar full of kung fu jerks. She’s… not that smart.

Herp derp.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 2 of 6)

Remember what I said about how for this movie, finding the bad guy is not a “major” plot objective? Well, this is what necessitates the qualifier. And it’s quite the bench-clearer.

“Just three people for this fight? I bet we can double that.”

2) Tsai, May, Bo and Li Mu Bai vs Jade Fox and Jen Yu

The Fighters:

  • Tsai, a police detective from another province, on a vengeful hunt for Jade Fox. Sportin’ some cool facial hair. Played by Wang Deming.
  • May, Tsai’s daughter in her twenties or perhaps late teens. Seems unprofessional to bring her along on both the search for and the fight against Jade Fox, especially since she proves to be worse than useless. Played by Li Li. No, seriously.
    • Armed with: a ridiculously small knife, some kind of rope/hook she never uses, and a dart that is presumably drugged, though when it finally hits someone (her) it doesn’t seem to cause any lasting damage.
  • Bo, Sir Te’s lantern-jawed security guard. An earnest and decent sort, but quite outclassed at this level. Played by Gao Xi’an. Fun fact: at one of the screenings I went to some of my friends confessed afterwards that for a good portion of the running time they thought that Bo WAS Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat’s character), even though the two dressed & acted differently, the only visual similarity being their hairstyles. What, like you don’t have racist friends?
    • Armed with: a spear with a fat sword blade at the end. Also has some kind of a cord with a claw at the end, but he doesn’t use it in the fight.
  • Li Mu Bai, the master warrior who recently owned the even-more-recently stolen Green Destiny. Played by living legend Chow Yun Fat.
    • Armed with: a taijijian, or simple, straight, two-edged sword.
  • Jade Fox, a deadly outlaw. Long ago she murdered Li Mu Bai’s master, Southern Crane, and more recently has killed Tsai’s wife/May’s mother, who was a police officer on her trail. Ruthless & clever. Played by veteran martial art star Cheng Pei-pei.
    • Armed with: a quarterstaff that’s full of all sorts of hidden goodies, including a sword blade, a knife that launches from the other end and some sort of projectile rope/whip. She also has a tiny knife hidden in her shoe like Rosa Klebb. The lady comes prepared.
  • Jen Yu, from earlier. Still in her thief/ninja outfit. It’s here we learn that she is secretly Jade Fox’s apprentice, though as Li Mu Bai quickly deduces, she has long since surpassed her master. (The Fox’s combat prowess comes from a stolen Wudan manual, but being a barely literate peasant she could only study the diagrams, whereas Jen could fully read the complicated instructions.) Played by Zhang Ziyi.
    • Armed with: the Green Destiny sword, and though we’ve heard its capabilities explained before this is the first time we get to see it in action. In shape it’s basically another taijijian with a prettier design, but it’s lighter, unbreakable, rust-proof and so powerfully sharp it’s practically a lightsaber. She breaks one opponent’s weapon with it in this scene, and it will not be the last.

Phew.

Pictured: one of the very few people in this movie, if not all of China, who does NOT appear in this scene

The Setup: Bo had tracked down Tsai & May earlier and, figuring out that they’re the good guys, joined up with them to hunt for the Fox. Turns out she’s been in hiding for years and posing as a humble governess for the Yu family, which is how she managed to train & corrupt Jen from a young age. Some wanted posters have flushed her out and she’s made arrangements to face off against her longtime pursuer Tsai at midnight in this quiet courtyard.

Note that Li Mu Bai shows up about halfway through, with Jen showing up slightly later. Though it’s plausible that Jen clandestinely followed her “governess” here and intervened when she thought it necessary, it’s never explained how Mu Bai knew to show up. Mystical powers help him sense battle? Out for a midnight stroll? All the yelling & clanking woke him up? Ah, well.

The Fight: When Jade Fox shows up (she’s late. Passive-aggressive much?), there’s some taunts exchanged between her and the would-be heroes, then the fight begins. Really, it begins between Tsai and Fox; May is batted away easily and mostly stays on the sidelines from there on; Bo’s entrance is delayed because he clumsily left himself attached to the tree (for… some reason) by way of the claw-rope thing.

Fortunately, the Fox & Tsai show is plenty interesting. The choreography is excellent and much more ground-based than the previous battle we saw. It’s similarly distinct in that this isn’t a low-stakes pursuit/escape scenario; these two clearly despise and want to kill each other. The contrast between the villain’s single long-range weapon and the policeman’s twin short-range weapons makes for lots of interesting possibilities, and the staging explores them with relish.

Tan Dun’s musical score kicks in here again with gusto, and while it’s not as singular as the accompaniment to the previous action sequence, it’s plenty memorable and fits the mood of the scene perfectly: whereas the last scene’s pounding drums were all about raw adrenaline, this selection connotes genuine danger and powerful emotion. The music also rises & falls appropriately with the pace of the action, dropping to a subdued growl whenever the fight’s interrupted for dialogue beats or new challengers appearing.

Bo eventually untangles himself but mostly makes things worse. He’s far too slow to be a real threat to Jade Fox, and after parrying his swings easily she ends up using him against Tsai, first as cover and later by hooking his spear and sending him after her opponent. Bo’s main purpose in this fight is as comic relief; he cuts a very clumsy figure in this sequence and his facial expressions look downright goofy when Fox paralyzes him with a series of pressure point blows.

May’s contribution is arguably worse, as when she finally is able to shoot a dart at Fox, her enemy simply plucks it out of the air and returns it to sender. This infuriates Tsai, and Fox is able to get the best of him, but Li Mu Bai makes his entrance just in time to save the policeman (and Bo, who he un-paralyzes with another set of pressure points).

After introducing himself, Mu Bai utterly pwns Jade Fox, outclassing her at every step. This is where most of the criminal’s aforementioned tricks (which she didn’t need against Tsai) come into play: the shoe knife, the hidden cane sword, and one particularly deft move where a spin of her cloak disguises an unexpected blade thrust. But cunning or not, she’s no match for Li Mu Bai, who defuses all her tricks and even seems to revel a little bit in his long-delayed revenge. When he goes in for the kill he himself is interrupted by the arrival of Jen, who shears the tip of his sword off with Green Destiny in her opening block.

Rather than become a chaotic free-for-all, here the fight splits in two: LMB vs Jen on one side, Tsai & Bo against Jade Fox on another. The latter is just as frenzied as before, but the former takes on a different tempo, as Li is intrigued by this young girl who has learned so much. He’s mostly toying with and questioning her, as he’s (correctly) confident that she is no real match for him. There’s even one very well done beat where Fox, in a pause in her own battle, spots Jen’s movements in the fight against Mu Bai, and the shock & betrayal are quite evident on her face: her student (and closest thing she has to family) has deceived Fox about her true progress.

Too bad that Li’s curiosity doesn’t take a backseat to his need to take care of Jade Fox, because while he’s futzing around off to the side the villain kills Tsai but good: having caught one of his thrown deer horn knives (in a way that tricked him into thinking he’d killed her) she throws it back at him and it lands right in the middle of his bald forehead. Very wicked-looking, but it’s the fight’s one notable misstep, because the thrown blade is shown to travel more than slowly enough for him to get out of the way. This is even more aggravating considering that in a previous scene, we saw Tsai use chopsticks to pluck a smaller, faster-moving dart out of the air that had been shot at him while his back was turned. I appreciate that finding a good ending to a fight scene can be almost as hard as finding one for an SNL sketch, but it’s still unsatisfying when the conclusion is forced via a single act of credibility-straining stupidity (see also Revenge Of The Sith and its “I have the the high ground!” nonsense).

LMB goes after the pair but it’s pretty much over; Fox briefly delays him with couple more surprises from that seemingly bottomless staff, then she & Jen escape together. Bad guys get away, good guys are down one. Darn.

Mostly this all comes together excellently. Some slight dings for the aforementioned chumping out of Tsai, and the almost back-t0-back life-saving arrivals of new challengers (two dramatic entrances in quick succession tends to diminish the, you know, drama). Also, while the physical comedy with Bo is fairly amusing, it kind of jars tonally with the rest of the scene, especially the grisly ending.

But I can’t fault it too much. The escalating action, the varied combat, the juggling of multiple players, the dramatic beats and the excellent music– it’s just too much fun and crazy ambitious besides. It’s also the one time we get to see Chow Yun Fat’s character, who is by far the most powerful out of everyone, really cut loose. It’s to be treasured. But the best is yet to come.

(In an interesting post-script, a few scenes later it’s heavily suggested that Bo gets intimate with a grieving May, though in a way that’s a more sweet and less creepy than I just made it sound. Good for them, I suppose; it’s a happier ending than anyone else gets in this bummer of a movie.)

Grade: A-

Coming Attractions: Master Li gets out his whippin’ stick.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (fight 1 of 6)

I wrote over 3,000 words about Transformers last week, you guys. I’ve earned this.

Tell me I didn’t. I dare you.

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)

The Fighters:

  • 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.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: A certain foxy lady.

“In France, she would be called ‘la renard’ and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her.”