The year 2000 was a strong one for unique cinematic love poems. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love poignantly captured the sadness of impossible ardor, the camera gracefully roaming from taxis to restaurants to other locations where our heroes can intimately feign intimacy, knowing that, alas, it’s impossible despite destiny’s war cry. Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark portrays maternal love at its most masochistic, with Bjork’s Selma sacrificing her eyesight and eventually her life in order to preserve her son’s future—the shaky, handheld camera and boisterous musical numbers only enhance the wildly shifting emotions around Bjork’s inordinately calm core. Yet Ang Lee’s dazzling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, usually thought of as a visual extravaganza above all else, belongs in the company of the millennium’s big boy, mixing In the Mood for Love‘s unobtainable romance with Dancer in the Dark‘s selfless-to-the-end philosophy. CTHD‘s most fervent admirers are fans of Hong Kong martial arts, or those entranced by the gorgeous cinematography. I’ve seen the film many times, and with each viewing, new layers emerge. The first time (in theatres), I was floored by Woo-ping Yuen’s action choreography—a delicious blend of discipline, training, and inner peace. The flying, criticized by some as ‘unrealistic,’ elegantly displays the transcendent mastery of Li Mu Bai (Chow-Yun Fat), Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), Jen (Zang Zhiyi), and a select few others. Notice how only the most advanced fighters are able to defy gravity…it’s a gift reserved for the elite, for the warriors who fight out of necessity and never for personal glory.
The second time around, I began to see past the grand production values and mesmerizing landscapes, and into Ang Lee’s mind. Here’s a director who’s known for personal films— Sense and Sensibility, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, The Ice Storm…all pictures that focus on social strata of different cultures. It appeared unlikely that he’d abandon all semblance of his roots in CTHD, so I paid close attention to the intertwining relationships and character development. I was shocked to find that these traits made up the film’s core. The tranquil dignity of Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien contrasts with the untamed eroticism of Jen and Lo (Chen Chang). Lo’s nickname, Dark Cloud, serves as a metaphor for his desert homeland as well as typifying the impending misery of Jen and Lo’s future. Their carnal passion for each other develops during a stunning desert chase, one where they begin as enemies and end as lovers. Unfortunately, after Jen leaves the desert, she’s forced back into a domestic life that she despises—it drains her spirit and leaves her soul barren. I was struck by how different the chemistry between Jen and Lo was from that of Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien.. then, the true dynamic of CTHD began to open up to me.
In fact, the two relationships couldn’t be more unalike, yet they meet the same sad end. For various reasons (past romantic experiences & loyalties, location, etc), Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien aren’t able to be together. In fact, until the devastating finale, neither utters a single word to the other about their true feelings, which fester inside them until death does them part. The duo’s evident mutual adoration is wrenching — there’s a sinking feeling throughout that fate isn’t going to be kind, a feeling that’s even more painful on subsequent rewatchings when the outcome is known. Meanwhile, Jen and Lo find themselves part of a different world, unable to recapture the magic of desert nights, until the aforementioned finale. Whether she actually dies isn’t spelled out for us, but the meaning is clear — the four principal characters can only find happiness in a world other than this. Throughout the picture, the four characters intermingle and find themselves relying on (or fighting with) one another, often recognizing the broken hopes of the others without being able to do anything about it. It’s heartbreaking, really.
I’ve returned to CTHD many times and its only gotten better, enhanced by the most gorgeous score of the past decade. The entertainment value, remarkable cinematography & choreography, and outstanding acting remain while new doors open up. With Lee’s restrained direction, the emotion lurks beneath the surface but rarely rises. That we’re given only occasional glimmers of optimism confirms my faith in Lee’s sticking to what got him here in the first place. Not coincidentally, his Hulk (2003) is another genre piece that bucks its traditional format and is all the richer for it. It’s a shame more directors don’t have the courage and/or talent to fill an exciting movie with a Shakespearian romance that’s tragic and unafraid to be so.