The first thing to note about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the most important: it is very proud of what it is, and makes no attempt to hide it. Lee’s film is a melodrama, unambiguously and unashamedly, and Lee directs with painterly flourish to match. He showcases the splendor and dignity of the work with magnificence and a sense of illustrious eminence, positioning it as part classical Hollywood epic (Lee is after all a highly Americanized director) and part Chinese mythmaking fable. Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is played at the level of naturalism, and all of it enhances the opulence of a production which wears its honest drama on its sleeves.
His three-character play consists of one part Chow Yun-fat as martial arts legend Li Mu Bai, one part Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien, the women he secretly loves and who has spent her entire life on an adventure and wants nothing more than to settle down, and one part Zhang Ziyi as Jen Yu, a younger woman of privilege who wants nothing more than to let loose upon the world with pride and snidely vigor. All three are larger than life figures out of theatrical drama, and their play – which sets out when Jen takes up residence with Mu Bai’s mortal enemy and steals a famed sword in an attempt to become Shu Lien – unfolds with the luster of a grand opera. Lee plays it at exactly this pitch from beginning to end.
Even without also functioning as the most poetic action film of the 21st century, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a dynamite old-school drama. But the fact is, it’s a pretty astounding achievement of action filmmaking in its own right, a high-class motion play of fluid poetry and fantastical human motion delivered in a tightly wrapped package and a bow with more character than any other action director would know what to do with. It really doesn’t get much better than the five-act-two-character play that is the showdown between Yeoh and Ziyi when the characters, two sides of the same fully rounded individual, play out their incompleteness against each other, trying to consume the others’ life just as they have tried to become the other in their daily lives. Or the following tapestry of free-flowing flight and psychological precision between Yun-fat and Ziyi, all climaxing in a moment of grand tragedy so Shakespearean you really ought to congratulate Lee for blanketing his film in such a thorough layer of the sort of drama no longer being kept alive these days.
Even more importantly: the action is never for a second at odds with the film, never layered on top of a finished production. It feels instrumental to the level of bare mechanics, for the peculiar mixture of dance and action is the means by which Lee’s characters express their identities in a world bound on their verbal silence. Trapped in their emotions and unable to express themselves vocally, the art of combat becomes a means by which they identify with others and express themselves as human beings, naturally doing so with zest and utmost care, assembling a string of interconnected physical motions like one might assemble words in an essay or a love letter. Lee elevates the Chinese film form of the wuxia epic to the level of poetic artistry and character exploration here. But rest assured, he is well aware of the harm that replacing words with physical combat does, and he doesn’t undersell the hurt underlying the beauty, even going so far as to undercut the beauty with its own superficiality and artifice (more on this later).
At the same time, while Lee’s work is unabashedly melodramatic and pointedly obvious as a dramatic work, it is also remarkably un-insistent. It’s beautiful and loaded with craft and skill ranging from the grandest gestures to the tiniest details, but it also asks a lot of us to decipher its hidden meanings and character details. For instance, the way in which the hidden salacious intent behind many of Yun-fat’s and Yeoh’s gestures are conveyed more in the quavering way Yun-fat and Yeoh glance at one another when the other isn’t looking, and in Lee’s intricate framing that suggests a certain boxed-in artifice keeping them from fully expressing their true emotions. For his story is one of people trapped in various, differing conceptions of life, struggling to redefine their identity through the framework of others they interact with, and always coming up lost in how to complete the transition without being stifled by stagnancy or the constantly shifting gears of those around them.
In the film’s glowing understanding of grand human emotion that sometimes borders on stuffy falsity, Lee finds his characters stuffy and false because they are trapped in lives they view as false, struggling to unleash their true desires and struggling even harder to keep them hidden. Fittingly, and perfectly, his film is a work of grand obvious gestures battling it out with slighter, almost indecipherable hidden undercurrents, mimicking his characters and using high melodrama to express both the ways in which melodrama is an artificial conception of human activity and the ways in which it reveals a truth about how we are all forced into artificial action to hide our true emotions. It’s a masquerade of a film, trapped in convention and stuffiness, for humans who masquerade their lives in convention and stuffiness. Both the film and the characters yearn to break out with vociferous, unrequited hunger, transforming tragedy at their doorstep into florid poetry. It’s a work of melodrama, yes, but in melodrama it finds a certain philosophy about human activity, not unlike the ways in which Terrence Malick used the same form thirty years prior in Badlands to break down the distinction between artifice and reality and to entrap humanity in the clashing tension between the two.
Incidentally, this very aesthetic, where-in the line between high melodrama, high art, and elegant high philosophy is so porous the three become inseparable, is the very essence of the Lee aesthetic. And it’s an aesthetic he finds equally comforting in the fertile fields of classical wuxia epics, neo-western iconography, campy comic book existentialism, and teeny-bopper exoticist literature. He’s a director of unparalleled breadth, but his films never feel like the work of a journeyman dabbling in different genres without a personal vision of how they are all interconnected. Instead, he’s a fluid director, a person capable of ambidextrous malleability as he weaves and caresses and shapes genres to his needs and adapts his desires to the needs of his genres.
He is, for all his expansive expressiveness and multifaceted style-as-storytelling interchangeability, a deeply intimate director whose works, almost all of them flawed in idiosyncratic ways, form a corpus of clarity and fascinating messiness. He boasts all the strengths of an auteur without any of the weaknesses (over-reliance on one theme or style to the point of familiarity) , and if none of his films are perfect, their flaws add to the texture and character of his thoroughly unapologetic works. He’s a remarkably self-reflective director, but he never for a second lets his internalized work grow tentative or obtuse. Instead, everything is lovingly spread out on the screen for the taking, filled with nuance but entirely gorgeous on the surface, and genre-critiquing even as it is thoroughly in love with its genre of choice. He is a special director, and we do not have enough of those these days. Plenty of good ones, but not special ones, and this is something to cherish.