Now that wire work is pretty standard in American film, it is hard to remember how impressive the effects were in The Matrix. Though The Matrix was hardly the first to use that type of effect, Asian cinema had been doing it for a while, it was the first time I had seen anything like it. I remember being completely awed by the look and movement of the film. Though much of the style and effects quickly became vamped by many films, shows, and commercials, it remained perfect in its visual effects. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out a few months later and pushed the Matrix visual envelope even farther. For my dollar, Ang Lee created a smarter, more beautiful use for the effects than the Wachowskis ever dreamed of creating.
The story is a bit tricky. A master martial artist, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), decides to give up his heroism and settle down. Proving his seriousness in this new direction he gives up his famed sword, the Green Destiny, to a friend. The sword is quickly stolen throwing Li Mu Bai and another friend, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) into detective work to reclaim it. Added to the plot is a noblewoman, Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), about to be married against her wishes, and Li’s old nemesis Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Chang). To add a little more to the plot (I told you it was tricky) Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are lovers destined to never have their loved fulfilled.
Ang Lee manages to sort out this complicated plot rather smoothly. The film is sumptuously shot on location in China. The renowned action sequences are poetic and beautiful. It feels more like watching ballet than a sword-fighting action movie. The more skilled fighters can climb up walls, jump great heights, and seemingly fly through the sky. Though the film never explains how they are able to manage such incredible feats, they do it with such agility and grace, that you never think to question it. There is a scene fought out amongst tall whisp trees that is pure poetry. Yet the action sequences never stand in the way of the story. This is not a film designed to wow the audience with nothing but visual tricks, the action serves the story alone and is not there to give cheap thrills.
As the film unfolds a theme develops. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lin never express their love for each other out of honor and loyalty. They hold to strict codes that must be obeyed over all of their own desires. Jen Yu is also bound by codes of conduct, but she chooses to disobey them and strives to live her own life. This serves as the central conflict between the characters. I will not give too much more of the plot away but will say that film concludes this conflict in a manner not seen often in cinema.
It is difficult for me to judge the acting of a foreign film. I choose only to watch the original language, with subtitles. This allows me to hear the nuances of the actor’s voices, but since I must rely on the subtitles to tell me what they are saying it is difficult to really judge a performance. That being said all of the actors do a fine job. Chow Yun Fat does a remarkable job as a master fighter. In each action scene he is in he fills the screen with a knowing presence. He fights with great poise as if he knows he will be the victor, but does not want to show his true ability. Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang are also standouts.
My only complaint has to do with one of the subplots. In the middle of the picture, we get a long back story on part of Jen Yu’s life. After watching the film again I can see that the back story is essential to the overall theme of the film, but it is still too long in the telling. It also serves to slow the film down just as the plot was finally moving along. I believe the essentials of the back story could have been told at a quicker pace allowing us to understand what is needed without slowing the pace of the film down or lengthening it too much.
This is a small complaint with a truly wonderful film. I have been a fan of Ang Lee for many years, and this film stands as his finest achievement. He is known for his smaller, character-driven family films. Here he manages to achieve something on a grander scale, yet maintains a beautifully portrayed character drama.