This week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot: in preparation for its Netflix-sponsored sequel set to come out this August, Nathaniel wanted to revisit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I couldn’t agree more with that impulse. Sadly, it was just announced yesterday that said sequel was getting bumped back to the first quarter 2016. Still, it’s a breathtaking movie and worth going back to for any occasion, even if I was horrified to realise as I was watching it how goddamn long it’s been since I’ve seen it – the entire lifespan of this blog and then some. I beg your pardon if I resist the urge to sneakily turn this Best Shot exercise into an excuse to write up the whole entire movie; the sequel is coming out in the future, after all, and that’s all the excuse I’ll need to re-revisit it come winter.
So let’s keep it nice and focused for right now. In my recent revisitations with the various odds and ends of Ang Lee’s career, I have mostly latched onto them as relationship dramas – between siblings, parents and children, lovers – meaning that this time around, I was more invested in the human drama than the fucking glorious landscape cinematography by Peter Pau, or the fight choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping that I confess to loving less than I did 12 years ago, when my knowledge of wuxia was basically this and nothing else. And this even caught me a little by surprise; I had every intention when I started the film of picking something from its fight in the bamboo forest, the sequence burned into my memory more than any other, thanks to its fluorescent greens and the slow grace of its movement and sound design. But instead, I went right to one of the film’s two love stories.
Quick primer, if you haven’t seen the film recently, or at all: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the story of a pair of middle-aged warriors, Li Mu-Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu-Lien (Michelle Yeoh), longtime friends and colleagues, and an intemperate young woman, Yu Jiaolong* (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the local governor, who is both a secret martial artist and secretly in love with the bandit Luo Xiaohu (Chang Chen). The older pair, who have never acted on nor confessed to their romantic attraction to each other, chase Jiaolong after she steals a great sword, the Green Destiny, and we are generally encouraged to see the feverish passion of the young lovers as an alternate possibility for the life that the old friends never shared.
So first and foremost, my reading of the film this time around was a love story, and here is the cap to that story:
This is near the end of the movie, so SPOILER ALERT, if a 15-year-old movie actually gets spoiler alerts: Li Mu-Bai has been poisoned, and Jiaolong has been sent to find an ingredient to help make medicine, though it’s pretty clear to us in the audience that they’re really just trying to get her out of the way to say goodbye. And so they do in a scene that, apparently, reveals the immense limitations of Chow and Yeoh’s Mandarin. So I’m ecstatic that I don’t speak Mandarin, because I get to just pay attention to the tender, sad looks on the actors’ faces, in the moment that they finally allow their defenses to fall and confess their love: a mature, calm love, born of wisdom and familiarity and not the rage of passion. And then it cuts to the wide shot above as Li Mu-Bai passes away.
The shot plays to two of my biggest weaknesses. One of these is the terrific us of negative space: all of that blackness isn’t entirely featureless – you can see the wall the left of the characters, and their reflection in the jet-black river below – but there’s precious little to see besides the slight curve of Yeoh’s back with the light falling directly on her. It is, in the most literal way possible, a portrayal of love as the light in the darkness, the thing that keeps us warm even in an empty, cold world. It is safety and comfort and human connection surrounded by death.
The other thing is that the abrupt cut from a series of close-ups to a wide shot has the effect of giving the couple their privacy, a trick that never fails to get me. Which is silly, sort of – they don’t exist. But even so, the film does not want to deprive them of this long-delayed moment of honesty and intimacy, and it’s not our moment to share. It belongs to them, and we can politely wait on the far side of the water, thank you very much. To me, it has the effect of making their love feel even more real; it is treated with respect and dignity that’s entirely earned. It has formed part of the film’s backbone all along, and because of that, this moment is, arguably the movie’s emotional climax. And that’s true whether we get to be a part of it or not.