All the Indies Were Kung Fu Fighting

You need a roadmap to find the hidden masterpiece in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Romantic thriller Proof of Life forgets the romance.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Directed by Ang Lee
Sony Pictures Classics

Proof of Life
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Warner Bros.

There’s something fabulously demented about the notion of pretentious American-indie types like Ang Lee and James Schamus (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) heading off to China to make a Hong Kong-style, sword-and-vengeance flick—the first martial-arts movie for the art-house crowd. Lee made his reputation on ponderous comedies of manners, many of them with female (or gay) protagonists, but the director grew up in Taiwan and turns out to have chopsockies and flashing-blade extravaganzas in his blood. Better yet, he and Schamus (an executive producer who collaborated on the script) have a rare instinct for how to infuse their action sequences with psychosexual fury—to make their battles seem like volcanic punch lines to matters that can’t be settled over cups of tea. The two have described Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as Sense and Sensibility with martial arts, and they’re not being facetious. At its core, this is the story of a young woman struggling to find fulfillment (sexual and otherwise) in a repressively patriarchal culture. It might be the wildest female coming-of-age picture ever made.

The movie is also, for all its jaw-dropping beauty, a little ungainly. Schamus adapted the fourth part of a five-part epic by novelist Wang Du Lu set in ancient China: Schamus had it translated into Chinese and rewritten by Wang Hui Ling; then he diddled with it to give it a more Western structure. Then he and Lee cast two of Asia’s biggest action stars in what are essentially supporting roles. The film opens with arrival of the legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) at the compound of his friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) after abandoning a course of meditation at Wudan Mountain, the training center of the greatest swordsmen. Earthly thoughts, he explains, kept pulling him down, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that those thoughts revolve around Shu Lien, the former fiancee of a buddy killed in fighting.

Out of respect for the dead man, these enamored souls haven’t touched each other in years, but Li has decided to give up his fabled sword, the bejeweled “Green Destiny,” and leave the ranks of warriors (the Giang Hu—the marital-arts life)—the implication being that he’ll soon come by to ask for a date. In the meantime, Shu Lien takes the sword to Beijing to entrust to Li’s old friend Sir Te (Lung Sihung), who’s in the process of entertaining Gov. Yu and his slinky teen-age daughter Jen (Zhang Zi Yi). The action proper begins that night, when a slinky masked bandit creeps into Sir Te’s manse and makes off with the Green Destiny, and when Shu Lien pursues the thief and engages with him or her in a furious battle through the streets and over rooftops and up and down walls.

If you’ve never seen a Hong Kong-style swordfight, this sequence will rock your world. It’s a convention that Chinese fighters can leap over trees and buildings—it’s not flying, exactly, it’s more like willful whoooshing. Soon they’re swirling through the air and somersaulting and flinging slate tiles and going hand to hand with hands as fast as those windmills on sticks. Gravity is a player here, but it’s a lower gravity—this could be a fight-cum-ballet on the moon. The action choreographer is the veteran (and sometime director and actor) Yuen Wo Ping, and none of his previous efforts have been shot with this kind of fluidity. When the bandit finally corkscrewed up and over a huge gate and Shu Lien was left alone in a vast courtyard, the audience burst into applause; they were practically hyperventilating.

It’s hardly a spoiler that the thief is Jen, since no one else in the movie has her build or smooth forehead. The bigger surprise is that it’s she—and not the characters played by Chow and Yeoh—who’s the center of the movie. The obedient little Jen, who’s about to enter into an arranged marriage with a man from a prominent family in a neighboring state, has a subterranean existence. (The Chinese character for “dragon” is actually embedded in her name, hence the movie’s title.) She has been schooled in Wudan-style fighting by a servant who turns out to be a notorious murderer called Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei)—whose anger at being denied training at Wudan (where she was a courtesan) led her to poison Li Mu Bai’s mentor and embrace a life of subversion, of which Jen is her greatest accomplishment.

The critic Harlan Jacobsen has likened Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to a martial-arts The Wizard of Oz, with Jen as a Dorothy pulled between the Wicked Witch (Jade Fox, who in one scene is actually done up with a pointy black hat) and the Good Witch (Shu Lien). The difference is that this Dorothy is a hothead whose frustration at having her natural impulses (what Camille Paglia might call her “chthonian nature”) suppressed creates havoc on an epic scale. She turns out to be bigger than either the bad or good witches: When she escapes into the forests outside Beijing, she lays waste to assorted smug males (who are like slobbering gits in a Clint Eastwood Western) and annihilates an entire restaurant. She’s a one-woman chthonian cyclone.

The movie was shot all over China, from its painted deserts north of Tibet to its southern bamboo forests, and Lee and his cinematographer have a genius for using the landscape as a metaphor. Li’s climactic battle with Jen—whom he wants to tutor, to bring over from the dark side of the Force, as it were—is set atop swaying trees in a verdant wood, and his Taoist prescriptions about learning to hold your sword “in stillness” and giving yourself up to find yourself are embodied in his own miraculous balance. The central section of the film, a long and deliriously romantic flashback in which Jen clashes with a bandit chieftain called Dark Cloud (Chang Chen) before stabbing and then leaping into the sack with him, is set against endless carpets of sand and primal rock formations and black caves—a mythic backdrop for the most giddy S&M courtship in modern movies.

Jen’s flashback is amazing, but it also warps the movie: Chow and Yeoh disappear for a long stretch and Jade Fox, the central villain, is gone for nearly an hour. Lee and Schamus can’t make up their mind if Jen is the story’s protagonist or antagonist—which wouldn’t matter at all if the shifting structure of the movie didn’t mirror their ambivalence. As Jen, Zhang Ziyi has a trace of baby fat in her cheeks and face that’s remarkably clear and unlined, but she doesn’t have much personality. And while the two stars are superlative athletes, there’s not enough of an erotic vibe between them. Yeoh is handsome but rather sexless, and little of Chow’s insolent magnetism is liberated by this formal period role. The conflicts become diffused: It isn’t clear why Jen and Yu Shu Lien have to engage in a fight to the death. And why, after an hour of rollicking can’t-catch-me combat does Jen become a drugged damsel-in-distress to be saved by Li? The narrative even has a creeping note of misogyny—a hint that it’s this young female’s unruly nature that has caused the destruction of so many good folks.

These are quibbles, but they explain why Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will probably fail to engage a mass audience in the United States. My first viewing left me dazzled but slightly confused; a second deeply impressed; a third rhapsodic. I’ll probably buy the film on DVD and revisit it occasionally, like a sumptuous coffee-table book (with a swooning score by Tan Dan); but I wish I hadn’t needed to rediagram it in my head to turn it into the masterpiece it so obviously wants to be.

Proof of Life, directed by Taylor Hackford, is an absorbing romantic thriller without, alas, any romance. The story of an Aussie hostage liberator (Russell Crowe) who falls for the wife (Meg Ryan) of the guy he’s trying to save from leftist South American kidnappers, the movie has a thrilling opening (Crowe outwitting the Russkis and the Chechens), a nifty military-raid climax, and no middle. I’m told that in the original (reportedly terrific) script the two characters had an intense and agonized affair—a turn that must have been quashed by Hollywood development types who thought it would make them unsympathetic to moralistic audiences.

The upshot is that the audience watches these noble souls struggle heroically to contain their passions while thinking all the while about how their real-life counterparts leapt into bed and Ryan publicly abandoned her spouse. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about who’s sleeping with whom in Hollywood. (If you’ve ever spent time with actors, you know that most of them are so narcissistic and emotionally promiscuous that actual sex doesn’t mean that much.) The issue here is the tension between the overidealized Hollywood universe and a messy and dishonorable real one. The hypocrisy interferes with Proof of Life on every level, because an affair between these characters might have lifted it into Graham Greene territory instead of keeping it at the level of a sodden Tom Clancy.

Crowe gets to use his real Aussie voice, which works better with that poker face, and his underplaying at times has a psychotic intensity. But Ryan looks dopey when she’s supposed to be stressed-out, and what’s with those long peasant skirts and boots? The pair evidently saved their chemistry for the bedroom.