You know what I haven’t talked about yet? Kung-fu movies. Which I find odd since I absolutely adore these movies! At their worst, they’re delightfully cheesy and more than a bit hilarious! At their best, they’re gripping action stories that get the adrenaline pumping more than any other kind of film can!
Even if they’ve since gone the way of westerns and are now mostly dead.
Today, I aim to fix that by talking about a martial arts classic: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Which will also be a great learning experience! I haven’t seen the movie before! So, what did I think? Well… I have a question to ask.
How can a movie this bad-ass be so fucking boring? Not to mention sloppy!
Story: The Jade-Encrusted Exposition
So… much… exposition… Struggling… to… stay… awake…
Accomplished swordsman Li Mu Bai has, after extensive meditation and training, decided to retire. He hands his trusted sword, ‘Green Destiny’, to his benefactor Sir Te in Beijing. Unfortunately, after Li’s friend/co-worker/not-quite-lover Yu Shu Lien delivers the sword, it is stollen by the infamous thief and killer of Li’s master: the Jade Fox. Now, our heroes must find and defeat the Jade Fox, her mysterious pupil, and reclaim the sword.
There is a lot going on in this movie! I didn’t even mention the officer and his daughter working to get revenge on the Jade Fox or the governor being potentially framed and his daughter, who longs to have a life of adventure over just being married! This movie’s plot is super crowded, yet still very interesting!
At least it should be.
Here’s how the story is broken down. First, we get a scene of exposition. Then, we’re treated to another scene of exposition. Maybe we’ll get another bit of exposition. After that, we’ll be treated to a bad-ass action scene. Then we go back to step one and repeat the whole process again.
This turns an engaging revenge story into an absolute slog. They suck away all the energy and bring the story’s pacing to a crawl! Just when you think it’s going to end, it cuts to another scene of expositionary dialogue! The characters will talk and talk and then bam! Action sequence!
It doesn’t help that the characters aren’t especially well written. There is some interesting drama between them, such as the romantic tension between Li and Yu. But in terms of personality, they’re all fairly bland. They all sort of blend together. If not for their differing appearances, I’m afraid I’d start to mix them up!
Thought to be fair: Jen Yu has a pretty great character arc. She’s pretty bad-ass.
Shame I can’t say the same about the next section.
Visuals: Boring Shots+Sloppy Editing=Not Awesome
Holy shit, am I watching a martial-arts action movie or a fucking soap opera?!
This film follows a simple structure. First, there are several scenes of people sitting around and talking. Then, there’s an action sequence or two. Then we go back to step one. Rinse and repeat until the story is over.
Let’s start off with the good: the action sequences. These are fantastic! The choreography on display is gorgeous, both in hand-to-hand fights and in sword duels. Each blow is decisive in the blow to come after it, no attack is without meaning or consequence, and not a second is wasted. Sure, the visual effects have aged and now look a bit cheesy at times (especially when the characters are hopping across buildings). But this film puts on some kickass displays of martial arts!
Unfortunately, the scenes in-between these action sequences are painfully boring! It’s all just a series of shot-reverse-shots while people exposit information at you! By the time I hit the forty-minute mark (out of a two-hour film) I was practically screaming at my screen “JUST GET ON WITH IT!!”
Which neither of my roommates appreciated.
Not to mention the strange editing! Sometimes, the film will cut from one scene to a completely unrelated scene with no bridge between the two! For example, around the twenty-minute mark or so, there’s a scene with a man, a servant of Sir Te named Bo, strolling through the market. He’s looking around suspiciously, trying to find the thief who took the sword. The camera pans all around him, conveying the crowded and hectic nature of the marketplace. His stern expression makes it clear that he is on the prowl, willing to grasp at any lead he considers could be important.
Now, if you haven’t seen the movie, I want you to guess what happens next. Does he spot a suspicious figure and follow him? Or perhaps he hears an odd noise and rushes off to investigate? Maybe someone lures him into a back alley and tries to attack him! What do you think bridges this scene and the next!
If you guessed at all, throw that away! Because there is no transition! It just hard cuts to him in an alleyway, interrogating some dude we have never met before. Then, after he doesn’t get any answers, we move on. What led to these events? Who is this person being interrogated? Don’t ask, because you won’t get an answer!
This isn’t a bad looking film. It won’t hurt your eyes to look at each shot. In fact, some shots are really pretty! But the direction outside of the action is so flat and boring that watching this movie transforms from an adrenaline-pumping joy to a sleep-inducing slog.
What a fucking waste.
Performances: Body Language, The Silent Monologues
Man, these people speaking in a language I don’t understand are phenomenal!
An important aspect of a good character is how they hold themselves. Sure, the dialogue can convey what they’re thinking and what they value. But it’s the minor details that really bring a character to life!
What do they do with their hands when they’re nervous? How do their eyes change with their facial expressions? How do they carry themselves in day to day life? If an actor portrays these things, they can truly bring a character to life!
Unfortunately, a good many actors out there don’t take this into consideration. But the performers in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon aren’t among them!
The actors in this film are fantastic! Chow Yun-Fat is a delight, equal parts charming and bad-ass in the role of Li Mu Bai. Michelle Yeoh is wonderful as Yu Shu Lien, perfectly conveying the character’s more subtle emotions through her facial expressions and hand motions! Gao Xi’an as Bo does a great job, capturing the character’s serious and naive sides perfectly!
None of the performers drag behind any of the others. Each of them bounces off of each other very well, even in the film’s more dull moments. They do their best with the material and manage to keep the movie interesting.
Which is very helpful, considering that not much else is doing so.
I had high hopes going into this movie. It’s a martial arts classic, after all! But walking away from it, all I can feel is disappointed. Sure, the action is absolutely incredible! Unfortunately, everything in-between is just so damn boring!
I can’t say I recommend watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you want to watch the action scenes, I’m sure you can find them pretty easily online. But the majority of the film is such a fucking drag!
Man… I was looking forward to this! I guess I’ll have to go back to the drawing board. Maybe I’ll review the best kung-fu movie of all time next week. That might make me feel better.
What’s the best kung-fu movie of all time? Easy!