Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Rise of a Tiger Mom: Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

While the cast and crew of Everything Everywhere All At Once revel in a essential takeover of Awards Season, can Oscar glory be far behind? My own enthusiasm for this inventive but strenuously confusing lark of a film is not wholehearted, but I’m happy for the attention being paid to the whole glorious tradition of Chinese action movies. I do love seeing Asian men (and women!) fly through the air while performing feats of derring-do. And I’ve long had a deep affection for the lovely and talented Michelle Yeoh, the Malaysia-born actress who grounds every role she plays—however outrageous it might be—with dignity and down-to-earth humanity.

 Many western filmgoers first met Yeoh as the steely matriarch in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, a satirical romp that some have found borderline offensive in its focus on wealth and power among the Chinese families of Southeast Asia. Yeoh is wonderful in that film, of course (especially in the pivotal mahjong scene), but it only gives us a small glimpse of her versatility and her physical gifts. That’s why I was thrilled by the re-release of Yeoh’s triumphant 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This lavish production from Taiwan, an early career triumph for director Ang Lee, was the rare foreign language entry to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. This was the year when the top prize went to Gladiator, but Crouching Tiger won for its cinematography, art direction, and Tan Dun’s musical score  while also collecting the expected award for best foreign language feature. (Clearly, the Academy was in the mood to honor costume dramas of epic proportions).

 Doubtless because of Yeoh’s ubiquity these days (I’m sure the videotape of her outrageous ad lib at Sunday’s SAG Awards has gone viral), Crouching Tiger is now back in actual theatres. How wonderful to see this film as it ought to be seen. Especially in the pandemic era, I well know the charm of curling up on your living room couch to watch a film. Still, large-scale movies are made for—and deserve—larger-than-life screens. As I lounged in my comfortable thaatre seat, everything impressed me: the music, the pacing, all the central performances, the immense scope of the action. This was a long-ago and far-away world I didn’t know, but one I was thrilled to explore.

 The chief critic at the Los Angeles Times, has reported that the film, for all its success in the west, was NOT an enormous hit in Asia. Perhaps it deviated too much from the formulas that Chinese movie-goers expect in their entertainments. In any case, it tells a story that is both highly formal and highly emotional, involving 19th century warriors trained in the mysterious arts of the Wudang sect. They fight off their enemies, bounding high into the air, in the service of some noble cause—in this case the preservation of the 400-year-old sword named Green Destiny. While fighting hard, they also love hard, but are also bound by strong internal rules, like the one that keeps Yeoh’s character, Yu Shu Lien, apart from the noble Li Mu Bai (Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat). What complicates matters is the exquisite young Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who sometimes works in close collaboration with Yu Shu Lien and sometimes fights tooth-and-nail against her. A true wild card, Jen may be the crouching tiger of the tale, or more likely its hidden dragon. Her enigmatic behavior in both war and love keeps the plot moving. And I for one adored the fact that women can be fighters as well as lovers.


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