There was a period of a few years of my life when I was seriously into martial arts, specifically kung fu. I blame it on Star Wars and all the expanded universe novels that I read from that franchise (all of which were rendered useless by Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, but that is another story). I became fascinated by the idea of the Force and the warrior monks that make up the Jedi. At some point I watched a documentary about various aspects of my favorite works of science fiction/fantasy, which talked about how the Jedi were inspired by Shaolin Buddhists. If you are not familiar with them, they are the religious order who in time immemorial basically invented martial arts. Thus began my search to find an authentic Shaolin kung fu academy because how else was I going to become a Jedi? All this was before I came back to my Catholic Faith (for my calling was from God which trumps all), and brings me to today’s film: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
The tale is set in an unspecified part of China’s past, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opens with its hero Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) arriving at the academy/business of his close friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). He is there to entrust his famous sword, the Green Destiny, to her to deliver to the safe-keeping of Governor Yu (Fazeng Li). Yu Shu Lien brings the weapon to the governor, and upon her arrival she meets and befriends Jiao Long (Ziyi Zhang), a young woman who is also staying at the governor’s estate in preparation for her wedding day. What nobody is aware of is that she has been trained in the martial arts by the infamous outlaw the Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Cheng), who is masquerading as her governess. When Jiao Long learns that Li Mu Bai’s legendary sword has arrived there, she disguises herself, sneaks into the room where it resides, and steals the blade. This theft causes a great deal of alarm and brings Yu Shu Lien out to try (and fail) and stop her. The next day Li Mu Bai comes to the governor’s palace, and Yu Shu Lien believes he is there because his former weapon had gone missing and his one time arch-nemesis Jade Fox had surfaced. Instead, Li Mu Bai had come because he had given up his life of adventure and as a monk in order to pursue his feelings for Yu Shu Lien, though he is reticent about revealing his true motives. That night, while pondering life’s mysteries (I suppose) he encounters the masked Jiao Long attempting to return the Green Destiny, aided this time by Jade Fox. In the resulting fight, Jade Fox notices that Jiao Long’s skills far outpace her own, leading the former to believe the latter did not care for the teaching. Barely escaping, Jiao Long is visited next by Luo Xiao Hu, “Dark Cloud,” (Chen Chang), Jiao Long’s secret lover. They had met when her caravan, moving through the deserts of western China, was attacked by Dark Cloud’s band of nomadic raiders. She was eventually captured by Dark Cloud, incensed by his temerity at stealing her precious comb, and they fall in love. That is all taken care of in a flash back. In the present time, Jiao Long rebuffs him on the eve of her marriage. But even the prospect of this arrangement repels her, and she takes the Green Destiny once more and flees, seeking a more mercenary lifestyle. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien go after her, following the trail of destruction she leaves in her wake. When they finally do find her, so does Jade Fox, who manages to poison Li Mu Bai just before he delivers a killing blow to his enemy. All this comes on the heel of Jiao Long finally agreeing to Li Mu Bai’s teaching and him confessing his love for Yu Shu Lien. He eventually succumbs to the toxins and dies in Yu Shu Lien’s arms. Distraught over the harm she caused, Jiao Long later commits suicide by jumping from a bridge. So not the happiest of endings.
What strikes me most about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the vocation of Li Mu Bai. Yes, I said vocation. All Catholics are called to spend some time in discerning what it is that God is calling them to do with their lives. Whatever that calling is, we call it a vocation. It can be marriage, consecrated single life, priesthood, or entering a religious order. These can also change, and it is not unheard of for people who had long thought they were supposed to be doing one thing to one day find themselves doing another. God’s ways are mysterious, but they are always trustworthy. The film suggests that Li Mu Bai was quite deliberate in how he went about the things that he did. I also commend him for his desire to lead a peaceful life. It is implied that at one point he decided to give up his pursuit of violent feats to become a monk, which in part led him to want to part ways with the weapon that had been at his side through all of those experiences and had brought him fame. But the one thing that he could not shake is his feelings for Yu Shu Lien, which had brought him down from the mountain in the first place. All of it, though, was the result of some serious thinking on his part, instead of him following whatever caught his fancy.
Watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a bit like watching a tourism promotional video in high definition, with punches, kicks, and sword fighting thrown in to help spice things up. That is not to say it is a bad movie. It won four Academy Awards, including for best cinematography, which was remarkable for a foreign film at that time. You will feel its length at moments, but if you enjoy martial arts films then you will probably like this one.