Something to watch tonight: Tuesday 24 October
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000)
By Boxing Day 2000 I was back working at the Paramount picture theatre in Wellington and we had exclusive rights to the hottest arthouse ticket in town: And Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Audiences had been waiting eagerly for it since it wowed the Cannes crowd six months earlier. In those days, anticipation was everything.
Also in those days, we didn’t have computerised ticketing – let alone online bookings – so no way to manage advanced sales.
Imagine our surprise – turning to terror – when we opened up to queues down the street and around the corner as every single session that day sold out. The Paramount had almost 700 seats in those days.
It was the golden age of arthouse cinema in Wellington and I’m not sure if anything was as big as Crouching Tiger was that holiday season.
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Swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) visits his old friend You Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, Best Actress Oscar winner for Everything Everywhere All at Once) and confesses that his heart is no longer in the violent protection business and that he intends to retire. His famous sword “Green Destiny” is no longer any use to him and he asks her to give it to Peking power-broker Sir Te (Lang Sihung) so he can go off into the hills and meditate.
Word of the presence of the sword in Sir Te’s house gets out and attempts are made to steal it. Dangerous bandit Jade Fox is reported to be in town Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of Governor Yu, is looking to break free of her obligations to make a political marriage and live an independent – and action-packed – life of her own.
All converge in the hunt for the sword, hoping that it will give them what they want.
Arguably the first time that classic Wuxia cinematic techniques had broken out of the cult kung-fu movie ghetto for Western audiences, director Ang Lee shoots the action sequences superbly. Early digital VFX is used to remove the wires suspending the actors but the camera movement is so fluid and the skills of the performers so supreme that effects like that are hardly necessary.
The music by Tan Dun (with soloist Yo-Yo Ma) brilliantly supports all the film’s moods and the cinematography by Peter Pau ensures that the magnificent locations are showcased at their most glorious.
But it’s the heart of the film that ultimately moves an audience.
Watching it again the other night I was struck by how perfectly balanced the two love stories are – in fact all the relationships are so expertly constructed and the plot designed to ensure maximum disappointment for everyone. It’s rare that something so tragic can also be so exciting.
Where can I find Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
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