Joan Crawford’s eyebrows, Sigourney Weaver’s tank tops, Linda Hamilton’s biceps, Angelica Houston’s platinum hair. Once upon a time, these were the cinema’s signs of tough women. Now, however, girlishness is providing a mask for the woman warrior, most obviously in Charlie’s Angels, but also in the new, much praised Ang Lee film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The film’s narrative unfolds slowly—too slowly at first. Master Li (Chow Yun-Fat) returns to his home village from training, presumably to settle down with the woman he has always loved, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). The courtship is reserved even by the standards of Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, but to be fair, the warriors have had little time for romance in the past. They both have rituals to observe, including the momentous climax of Li’s return, which is to give his prized, magically charmed sword, the Green Destiny, to his former teacher, Sir Te (Lung Sihung, the father in Lee’s family trilogy, Pushing Hands, Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman).
Soon a masked bandit steals the sword, initiating a battle for its possession: this first glimpse of combat comes like an ecstatic release, as Yu chases the thief over the rooftops of the villa in a gravity-defying series of leaps and some frenetic swordplay. While Master Li believes that his arch enemy Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei) is behind the night burglary, Yu Shu suspects the willful and beautiful teenager Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), displeased that she is about to lose her freedom in an arranged marriage. Conspicuously agile with her hands as she paints calligraphy, Jen eventually reveals that she has, in fact, been studying to be a master warrior under the tutelage of Jade Fox. She further demonstrates her precocious abilities when she slices her way through a seemingly endless barrage of male challengers at a local tavern, during which she flips off of a balcony and spins to the floor, in stunningly synchronized sequence of acrobatics and camera movement.
Like most martial arts movies, Crouching Tiger is structured in a plot-fight-plot-fight pattern, with the fights propelling its appeal. At the center of it comes an extended flashback that ruptures the temporal continuity but is dreamily retro and quite movingly introduces Jen’s immediate history. Traveling in a caravan across the barren Chinese hinterlands, Jen and her party fall prey to a pack of thieves. Never lacking in spunk, she charges after them on horseback to retrieve a prized comb—even in the middle of nowhere, a girl has to be glamorous. After a fine chase and gymnastic kickboxing, the ringleader of the bandits, Lo (Chang Chen), takes her hostage, and eventually, while she’s in his captivity, he lets on that he loves her and it’s not long before she comes to love him. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this flashback interlude is its sexual tension, which then becomes explicitly erotic, in what is certainly the most sensual sequence Lee has ever directed: Jen and Lo essentially consummate the desire that Master Li and Yu never will.
But more importantly, the sequence illustrates that the fundamental division in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not between good and evil, but between generations. The most thrilling fights come when Yu and Jen duke it out as if each has something personal to prove: Yu will not be out-performed by a young twit, and Jen, like the adolescent rebel she is, will not let some old spinster beat her. Still, although their contentious encounters make for exciting action sequences, they also border on an uncomfortable ageism, perhaps most apparent when Jen runs Yu through a series of weapons during one fight. The sequence is undeniably thrilling, but Yu’s desperation to keep up has a dark undertone, especially for Yeoh’s fans who want to see her win the fight. Jen and Lo, in their youthful ignorance, have a bullheaded sense of liberty and entitlement give them more vitality than Li, Yu, or the witchy Jade Fox. Despite Chow and Yeoh’s top billing, the kids get more screen time and fill it up with more obvious energy.
This imbalanced screen time, as Lee explained following a premiere screening for the film, is in part the result of extraordinary compromise. Midway through shooting, Chow had to leave to promote Anna and the King, and Yeoh broke her leg, rendering her unable to work for two months: Ziyi became the film’s focus because she was available for filming. The film’s disjointed construction and syncopated rhythms have been overlooked by some reviewers because of the eye-popping fight scenes (choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, of The Matrix fame and many Hong Kong actioners) and to a lesser extent, the fantasy elements—flying warriors, supernatural settings—which respectfully evoke, among other classic Hong Kong films, Tsui Hark’s The Warriors of Magic Mountain (Shu Shan) (1983). Lee says that he added plotting (the desert flashback) to make the film more appealing to Western art house audiences, but his presumption that these viewers need a more intricate narrative in order to appreciate a film may be misguided. Hong Kong action tropes have been integrated into Hollywood films for some time, and a considerable community of martial arts fans have given Hong Kong films a sizable audience in the U.S. for some time.
As it turns out, it’s the incredible flair and complexity of the actors’ movements, not of the narrative, that have engaged audiences—art house or otherwise, around the world. The balletic action (especially in the case of the all too-brief and much remarked tree-top sequence), in the battle sequences displays both a grace of performance and the wizardry of digital enhancement. (Among other things, wires used as harnesses during the flying sequences were erased in post-production.) It is during the fight sequences that Yeoh demonstrates her mastery in the craft of combat and her character is allowed to break out of her self-repressive mode. It’s Yeoh (the distinguished pro) and Ziyi (the hotheaded newcomer) whose fight scenes are most riveting.
And yet, for all their skills and art, the warriors don’t appear to be having much fun. And as sacrilegious as it may sound, this lack makes Charlie’s Angels the more intoxicating film. Technically, the fight scenes in the two movies are similar (Cheung-Yan Yuen, Yuen Wo-Ping’s brother, choreographed Angels), aside from the extensive use of weapons in Crouching Tiger. In both movies, the young women—the Angels and Jen—have all the right moves and look gorgeous in action. The question then arises: would these films be as visually pleasurable if the women were not young and beautiful?