Growing up in LA during the 1980s, I would wait every Saturday for KFC. Not the fried chicken, but Kung Fu Cinema, a weekly dose of martial arts movies on local television. For me and many of my peers who grew up with visions of Bruce Lee dancing in our heads, KFC plunged us deep into a mythology of warrior clans, mystical monasteries, tragic heroes, diabolical villains, and most of all, bodies, those beautiful, wonderful, miraculous bodies that leapt, swung, and danced with an impossibly deadly grace. That voyeuristic pleasure is what made KFC—no matter how bad the dubbing or how inane the plot—a revered cult indulgence, an imaginative escape from the staid space of sci-fi galaxies and police precincts offered by network television. KFC’s physical grandeur continues to amaze audiences today, improving movies like The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels and guaranteeing the careers of globally mobile Asian actors like Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the latest in the KFC line, but raises the stakes considerably. Despite having no English dubbing (thank god), no white actors (finally), and a budget far smaller than the typical Hollywood CGI orgy, the film has inspired critics worldwide: they’re not simply calling Crouching Tiger a great action flick, but one of the best movies of the year, contributing to an Oscar buzz that seems improbable by all conventional standards. Certainly, the movie’s credentials are impeccable: director Lee—following a trio of well-received dramas (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Ride With the Devil)—has realized his childhood dream of making a martial arts epic, and brings along the double-packed star power of Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh (possibly two of the most popular actors in the world), as well as action director Yuen Wo-Ping, who made his mark on Hollywood by choreographing The Matrix.
For all these stars, however, the film more or less belongs to newcomer Zhang Ziyi, a 19-year-old actress whose character, Jen Yu, is at the center of the narrative. Jen is an affluent but unhappy teenager who desires to flee her arranged marriage for a life of adventure. She befriends Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), a free-living warrior whose remarkable skills are only exceeded by the melancholy longing she feels for Li Mu Bai (Chow), a fellow fighter who possesses the 400-year-old Green Destiny sword. Rounding out the cast are the venerable Cheng Pei Pei, a veteran Hong Kong action heroine who plays the film’s ambivalent antagonist, Jade Fox, and Chang Chen, who plays Jen’s desert-marauding love interest, Lo. For those sensing that there’s a lot to follow here—you’re right. The plot and mix of characters are more than a little oblique, forming the film’s primary weakness—but we’ll get to that later. First, the good stuff.
One doesn’t need a KFC background to enjoy Crouching Tiger, but it helps in appreciating how the movie builds on—and arguably surpasses—that rich cinematic tradition. Lee smartly works in slapstick physical comedy with existential soul-searching, imbuing otherwise stock characters with genuine human complexities and frailties. Crouching Tiger is largely a movie about self-awareness and self-determination, as most of its characters struggle to realize lifelong desires. Even Jade Fox, as the film’s designated “bad guy,” is far from one-dimensional. Like Jen Yu, whom she’s secretly tutored since childhood, Jade seeks a life free from the burdens of societal pressures—including patriarchy—but when she discovers Jen having second thoughts about joining her, Jade’s conflicted love/hate for her apprentice forms an unexpected emotional crux in the film.
Likewise, Lee coaxes an understated but moving performance from Yeoh, an actress whose dramatic talents are too often underappreciated, as Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai repress their mutual passion for one another. In addition to developing these human dimensions, Lee is also clearly conversant with KFC conventions and in one brilliant scene, manages to play homage by goofing on one of its most hallowed standards: the teahouse scene. When Jen stops by for a quick noontime meal, she is confronted by a motley crew of wannabe warriors, each more pretentiously named than the next (think: Iron Arm Lu, Fire Dragon Tai, et. al.), and she proceeds to demolish them (and the restaurant), proclaiming her own outrageous nom de guerre, “Invincible Sword Goddess.”
On that note, if Crouching Tiger is causing jaws to drop worldwide, the person who deserves the most credit isn’t Lee but choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping. His credentials in Asian cinema have been legendary for decades and Crouching Tiger is his best work since Jet Li’s Fist of Legend (1994). Chow’s fencing is sublimely fluid as he bends and sways his way against opponents, but even he has to stand aside for Zhang and Yeoh’s deft dueling. In the movie’s money scene, Shu Lien’s courtyard becomes ground zero for a battle between her and Jen as the lithe teenager, armed with the indestructible Green Destiny, forces Shu Lien to run through practically every weapon in her arsenal. The sheer kinetic energy of the scene easily surpasses similar sequences in The Phantom Menace, Charlie’s Angels or Romeo Must Die, and gives The Matrix‘s ballistic bullet ballet a serious challenge. Still, Yuen’s much-mentioned wire-fu, which enables the actors to loft their way across rooftops and tree lines, is an acquired taste. Some viewers genuinely like the gracefulness of motion, but even for a film based on fantasy, the wire work just looks contrived and more than a little hokey.
What is beyond debate is the richness of the cinematography provided by Peter Pau. The range in China’s landscapes is gorgeously caught, especially when Pau’s camera looks out on the desolate painted valleys of Western China, the sprawling urban maze of Beijing, or the mist-soaked Wudan mountains. More than any costuming or props, it’s the spectacle of the land and environment that transports viewers to that proverbial other world. For all these elements, Crouching Tiger deserves much of the praise it’s gotten. And importantly, it’s far more accessible and enjoyable than its two closest cousins, Tsui Hark’s stylistically overblown ode to sword fighting and homoeroticism, The Blade (1995), and Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time (1994), a film of undeniable aesthetic beauty but perhaps the most boringly obtuse kung fu film ever made. In contrast, Crouching Tiger is fun to watch because it doesn’t take itself so seriously, while maintaining high production values.
All that said, Crouching Tiger is not without its serious faults, namely the story. KFC has never been known for the quality of its plots, usually because they’re either too single-minded (“You have dishonored my family, prepare to die!”) or too elaborate, which is Crouching Tiger‘s problem. Much of Lee’s previous work keeps things simple on the surface and sows the complexity underneath, but Crouching Tiger is the inverse—too complex on top and too shallow beneath. For example, for all their emotional depth and charisma, Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai still come off flat. She’s too one-note in her silent angst, and he’s too full of his stubborn “I will avenge the death of my master” attitude; and together, they’re unambiguously the “good guys,” lacking the ambiguous morality that makes Jen Yu and Jade Fox so much more interesting.
But Lee also overloads these characters’ stories past the point of lucidity, especially Jen’s. In trying to survive the transition from her adolescent desires to the responsibilities of adulthood (think Dirty Dancing with swords), she has to juggle relationships with her mentor (Jade Fox), confidant (Shu Lien), idol (Li Mu Bai), and boyfriend (Lo). She spends most of the movie as a spoiled, headstrong upstart, endowed with incredible talent but no strength of character to channel it. When Jen finally understands the consequences of her actions, it’s far too late to change anything, and brings the narrative momentum to a clumsy resolution that is anything but.
Because the film focuses on Jen Yu, along with Shu Lien and Jade Fox, it’s easy to see why many reviewers, like Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum and the New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell, would want to get behind Crouching Tiger as a feminist fable. Especially compared to the femme faux-feminism of Charlie’s Angels—where girls kick ass while modeling it—Crouching Tiger is a huge improvement, highlighting women warriors who don’t deny their sexuality but also aren’t forced to market it. But while it’s laudable that critics are embracing these strong female principals, their reasoning is a little suspect. A heavy dose of race-baiting, American snobbery pervades several remarks, notably Schwarzbaum’s: “In this story, especially, Lee also advances a revolutionary agenda of female equality, in a country that traditionally—officially—undervalues females.” No doubt, Chinese society is steeped in centuries of patriarchy, but last time anyone checked, practically every country in the world—particularly the United States—undervalues women at both cultural and institutional levels. Singling out China—mythical Qing Dynasty China at that—as some kind of paternalistic straw villain is an exercise in ethnocentric hypocrisy.
Such praise also betrays a certain ignorance about the KFC body of work. When Mitchell writes, “The picture frees the genre from being part of a man’s, man’s, man’s world,” he seems unaware that strong women have long played a role in Chinese folklore and KFC—from the tale of Fa Mu Lan (the basis for Disney’s Mulan) to popular KFC films like Wing Chun, The Heroic Trio, and The Bride With White Hair, not to mention dozens more. This is not to say that KFC isn’t gassed up on some heavy testosterone, but to claim that Crouching Tiger fundamentally alters the genre—rather than adding to transgressive traditions already existing within—sells the genre short.
Even if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a slightly (but significantly) flawed masterpiece, I can’t help but wish for its success, and not just because it takes me back to my KFC childhood or because its best scenes are so intensely pleasurable to watch. I’m also hoping that all the hype will finally force indolent American audiences to catch up to the rest of the world and learn to read subtitles. If the movie’s able to accomplish that much, then maybe it really does deserve to be called the movie of the year.