Friday, April 1, 2016

Rewatch/Newatch: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon + Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

"Rewatch/Newatch" is a new feature here at G&DS Disagree where we rewatch one (or more) films in a series and then watch the latest release in the series.  It's just that simple.

[note: I had intended to do a "Rewatch/Newatch" with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman but there was just too much to say about the latter and not nearly enough new to say about the former...I may just do a One Paragraph Rewatch writeup for Man of Steel a lil' later)

2000, d. Ang Lee - DVD
2016, d. Woo-ping Yeun - Netflix

Back in 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon changed the North American cineplex forever.  It's not that foreign language films, or more specifically Chinese films, or even more specifically martial arts/wuxia films hadn't made it to the Americas before, but there had never been a mainstream commercial success quite like this, nor one that commanded 10 Oscar nominations and 4 wins.  It was nominated in both best picture and best foreign language picture (only one of 8 pictures to ever do so) though best picture went to another genre picture, Gladiator, and best director went to Stephen Soderberg, which is hard to argue).

Thanks in part to the efforts of Quentin Tarantino in the half-decade before - using his cult status and fame to bring classic "Asian Action" films to a wider North American audience - and also the success of the Wachowski's Matrix, audiences were hungry to see a real Chinese martial arts epic that wasn't low budget, cheesy, badly dubbed, or poorly shot.  Ang Lee, already an accomplished and established director in North America, took a modest risk in adapting the fourth novel in Wang Dulu's Crane Iron Pentology.  It was a co-production of China, Taiwan and the US, and the script co-written by Thai and American writers, tailored more for an American audience than Chinese one.

Though it wasn't a straight-out-the-gate blockbuster, positive critical response, word of mouth, and it's Oscar nods ultimately made it a very successful movie domestically.  While the Matrix may have teed up the wire work (both films involved legendary fight choreographer Woo-ping Yeun) it was Crouching Tiger's graceful beauty, masterful fights and dazzling swordplay that western productions had been so desperately trying to replicate up until the rise of the superhero a decade later.

It's this utter dilution of the wire-fu craft that has made Crouching Tiger almost a forgotten relic in the past few years.  What was once rather legendary and notorious has now become a distant memory and reclusive classic.  It didn't help that Hollywood distributors were snatching up and promoting countless other Chinese films as "the next Crouching Tiger", and most were at best pale imitators (if not butchered for the American market by the distributors). With the bigger, louder action movies dominating the multiplex almost year round now, the desire to read subtitles and engage in foreign history has greatly diminished.  Plus, very few, if any large scale foreign films are looking to the North American market for success like Crouching Tiger did, and so they just don't play to domestic tastes.  Each subsequent knock-off imported in the early/mid 2000's not only failed to live up to the expectations of Lee's production, but also seemed to diminish the memory of it.

I know in rewatching the film for the first time in well over a decade, I had forgotten almost the entirety of the story, and beyond the recognizable faces of the cast and a few standout images, the entirety of the film.  But it didn't take long to suck me back in.  I've long been a sucker for Michelle Yeoh (here performing in Mandarin for the first time, looking wise and world weary, yet radiant and powerful) and have a strong fondness for Chow Yun-Fat (also not a native Mandarin speaker) as well, so the moment the two share a scene early on, I was drawn it.  It helps that despite any issues with the dialect, the two have immense presence on screen and explosive chemistry together.  The main thrust of their story is they were warriors together for a long time, and their love persisted through seemingly endless battles, but they were unable to consummate their love since Shu Lien (Yeoh) was to wed the brother of Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat).  Li Mu Bai's brother died in a fight long ago, but both felt (somewhat foolishly) it would dishonor his memory by acting upon their impulses.

Li Mu Bai is ready to move forward but wants to rid himself of the demands and phantoms of the past.  He asks Shu Lien to take his legendary sword, the Green Dragon, to a mutual friend, Sir Te, as a gift and he will soon join her and they can start a life together.  However fate intervenes at Sir Te's, when Shu Lien's visit coincides with that of a visiting Governor.  His daughter, Jen, take an interest in both Shu Lien and the Green Dragon, making an attempt at snatching the later in a late night escapade.  It's revealed that Jen (Ziyi Zhang) is the student of the woman who killed Li Mu Bai's brother, and has been posing as Jen's handmaiden for over a decade.  Li Mu Bai cannot move forward with Shu Lien while she still walks free.

Jen's story, meanwhile, is the major focus of the movie.  A lengthy flashback tells of Jen's kidnapping at the hands of desert pirates, but ultimately she came to love her gentile, roguish captor, Lo (an extremely charming Chen Chang).  She's now in an arranged engagement but in her heart is terrible defiance and an endless love for Lo.  Though Shu Lien tries to help her, Jen is of the petulant, rich teen sort, used to getting her own way and with the skills to throw one hell of a temper tantrum.  In the end, the story winds up a solemn, yet beautiful tragedy.

 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon definitely holds up as a masterpiece.  The plot is almost simplistic, and yet its locations, it's time period, it's people, their seemingly deep-but-only-alluded to back story are so very exotic.  It's literally an epic love story (two, actually) with a lot of mysticism and lore backing it up.  It's beautiful to look at, and the score (including many solo pieces with Yo Yo Ma) is astounding.  The wire work is graceful, almost to a fault.  We're so used to the heavier, more brutal fighting of North American cinema (and even classic Asian action) that the intent here is an approximation of weightlessness.  It just looks off, but then it's supposed to be surreal, a skill only a few possess.  They actually call it flying.  They make such gentile running style motions in the air...it's kind of absurd but there's at the very least an internal consistency to it.

That this is the fourth story in a series is so utterly apparent, and the desire upon rewatch was the same as it was in 2000: more.  I want to know more about Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai's legendary battles, their victories and losses.  I want to know more about the training school (boy's club though it is) on Mount Wudang.  Plus I like this world where women are empowering themselves in what is very obvious a patriarchy.  I was ready for the Netflix original presentation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

But I wasn't really. 

I wasn't ready for Sword of Destiny to be so...so... not good.  I wasn't expecting it to be in English foremost, and yet it was.  All of the actors are speak English on screen yet the entire production looked ADRed.  It's not like old Shaw Bros. dubbing, but it's still noticable that the voices aren't 100% in synch with the mouths.  That was blow number one.

Michelle Yeoh is back as Shu Lien, who ends her exile to attend the funeral of her friend, Sir Te.  But Sir Te's compound is rocked by two interlopers, Wei Feng (servant of the dreaded warlord Hades Dai) and Snow Vase, an enemy of the warlord.  Wei Feng is captured while Snow Vase implores Shu Lien to train her in the Iron Way.  Meanwhile, Hades Dai is on the warpath after a prophecy tells him that a great sword, the Green Dragon, will be his undoing.

Blow number two finds film completely undercutting the beautiful tragedy of Crouching Tiger.  I love me some Donnie Yen but having him show up as Meng Shizhao, Li Mu Bai's supposedly dead brother and Shu Lien's former betrothed is some rank B.S.  It's certainly not used for anything even closely approximating the dramatic or romantic tension of the first film, and it's just feels like a romantic entanglement by default.

The film finds Shizhao recruiting a band of heroes to help stop Hades Dai, and they're a fun lot, but not given nearly enough to do in the film before most become fodder for Hades Dai's army.  Their memorial service is perhaps the most touching moment of the film, in a film that's otherwise largely devoid of touching moments.

It's third failing is it's craftless and heartless.  Woo-peng Yeun takes on the role of director, but it has almost a TV movie quality to it.  There's the occasionally well-shot scene that hints at the original, but the pervasive use of passable CGI (something the original only used to remove the wires) makes it feel and definitely look less like a sequel than yet another derivative.  I don't doubt that Woo-ping wasn't actually trying to emulate Ang Lee's style, as this seems to be more your conventional actioneer, but the callbacks particularly in the score are what pains me the most.  I could accept it as a lesser than on its own terms, but those score beats just keep drawing thoughts of the original back.

The fight choreography (assuredly Woo-ping was involved but doubtlessly so was Donnie Yen) is quite good, and the fights are well orchestrated and fun to watch.  It's just unfortunate that the rest of the film is so dire and dull.  The characters don't resonate at all, their chemistry (beyond Shizhao's band of merry men and women) doesn't connect.  Yen and Yeoh on screen seem like old pals, rather than reunited lost lovers, which makes sense given they are old pals...but they it's like they're not even trying for romantic chemistry.

The story is repetitive, hitting a lot of the same ideas as Lee's film, particularly in the contracts between the young rogues in love and the old, seasoned warriors fighting their attraction...and yet it fails to not just live up to the past but even strive to differentiate itself.  For all the complaints about Star Wars: Episode 7 hitting the same beats as Episode 4, it at least found new footing in its new characters.  Here they fail to even build new characters. They're so bland, and the focus here is unfortunately what Crouching Tiger managed to actually avoid; by making the action the center of the film the story is treated like a cast off.

It's so disappointing.  I'm curious to know more of the stories from the Crane Iron Pentology, it's just obvious I'm not going to get any satisfaction from any further films.