“Broads with swords.”
Not many subtitled movies can claim to have inspired commercials (Jean de Florette being the only other that comes to mind), but seeing the Mountain Dew advert obviously based on this movie makes you realise just how deeply this film has permeated into the American pop psyche. But while this contains the most spectacularly kick-ass action ever seen in Western multiplexes (note the qualifier), at heart, it’s a set of exquisitely tragic love stories, spun into a web which simultaneously confounds expectations and fails to live up to them.
It’s clear from the start that Lee is not following the traditional approach to martial arts movies, which usually start with a thump to get the audience’s attention. He is happy to set the scene and introduce the characters for the first quarter of an hour in a stately and mannered way that belies what is to come. Similarly, the action climax happens twenty minutes before the end.
The other major variation from standard practice is that the acting is fabulous – often in HK action movies, this is an afterthought, and the likes of Jackie “two expressions” Chan and Jet “that’s one more than me” Li are never going to win Oscars. I would previously have put Yeoh in the same category, but Lee coaxes a performance of great depth from her – having Chow Yun-Fat, possibly the best, and certainly the most charismatic Asian star, to work against does no harm either. This is what lifts the film up to undreamt of heights: have Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme ever brought tears to anyone’s eye? [Except perhaps the poor schmuck who paid for a cinema ticket!]
Yet if the acting sets a new standard, the action surprisingly doesn’t, at least not to anyone familiar with Hong Kong movies. This kind of thing has been done, to the point where it can even be mercilessly lampooned by the likes of Flying Dagger, which has its own treetop battle. This perhaps explains why its record-setting box-office in the United States (doubling the take of any previous subtitled movie) was conspicuously absent in the Far East. While Zhang YiYi’s restaurant demolition job is memorable, for me the highlight pitted Yeoh against Zhang in Yeoh’s home, a balletic battle which worked particularly well because it largely rejected the fly-by-wirework running through the rest of the movie. I’m a traditionalist in such things, and always prefer genuine physical ability to special effects.
The plot unfolds with a stately elegance, showing little regard for normal chronology. The easiest way to describe it is to break it down into smaller components – any one of which would provide sufficient content for your average kung-fu film – each running through the movie like the strands in a rope:
- The powerful but undeclared love between two swordsmen, Li (Chow) and Yu (Yeoh).
- The struggle for control over the legendary Green Destiny sword.
- Jen (Zhang) and her long lost love, the bandit Lo (Chang) – who returns just in time for her impending arranged marriage.
- Jen’s apprenticeship to the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng), who will not let her go at any cost.
- Li’s quest for revenge against Jade Fox, who killed his master.
The sisterly relationship between Yu and Jen is particularly impressive, with the older woman trying to guide the willful youth and prevent her from making the same mistakes she did. But when (even in ancient China!) has anyone been able to tell a teenager anything? Special praise also to veteran Cheng, whose Jade Fox is a fabulous character, worthy of more screen time than she gets here – I’d love to see a prequel, setting up the story between her and Li. In comparison, the men are somewhat ill-defined, particularly Lo: you never get much sense of why Jen fell for the man who kidnapped her, and I can only really blame it on Stockholm Syndrome. Despite being reduced to a supporting role, Chow Yun-Fat is as good as ever, though I’ve heard tell that his Mandarin accent leaves a little to be desired, since he’s a Cantonese speaker naturally!
Regardless: what you have here are three of the strongest and finest female characters of the past decade, excellent acting and amazing action. The result is as close to perfect as anyone could reasonably expect.
Dir: Ang Lee
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Zhang ZiYi, Chow Yun-Fat, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei Pei