In terms of kung fu action ‘Crouching’ has easily set an entirely new standard to which new films will be compared. Make no mistake though, this isn’t an action film – rather Ang Lee has created a live-action version of a centuries old Chinese fable about two women, a fable which is very drama/romance oriented.
Looks wise this is a truly beautiful movie with amazing locations and intriguing light making each shot as rich as an oil painting. The performances are just as rich too with Zi-Yi doing a star making turn as the main heroinne, whilst Michelle Yeoh gets to show of not only her considerable fighting skills intact but also just how graceful and dignified she can be – a true class act of a lady. Sadly the guys don’t do as well, Yun-Fat fills the dignified role easily though is almost too cold throughout the film until the end, whilst Chen does OK but isn’t the most interesting of characters.
One of the reasons this’ll have difficulty crossing over to Western audiences is that about 80% of the movie is dialogue heavy (ie. lots of subtitle reading) conversations held by people just sitting around in stark rooms – very slow and very serious with almost no jokes to lighten the mood. The pace is very schizophrenic with a repeating cycle of about 20 minutes of drawn-out conversations, followed by a 10 minute burst of intense and gripping action/fighting before it repeats over and over again – each one never mixing as well as they probably should.
As a result tension and intensity comes in a series of spurts rather than slowly building up toward a big ending like in most movies – so the ending feels like a bit of an anticlimax. Nevertheless for those who can appreciate foreign films and don’t mind pacing that much, the story itself is quite intriguing with an interesting twist or two along the way but feels overly long. The musical score mostly plays the same tune over and over again which becomes irritating.
Now we come to the action and all I can say is HOLY COW. There’ll be lots of comparisons to “The Matrix” as it had fast kung fu and opponents able to do tall leaps on occasion, but ‘Crouch’ goes far beyond it. For starters throughout the scenes each opponent defies gravity pretty much every second, whether it be leaping from rooftop to rooftop on one jump or flying down the faces of hundreds of metre high waterfalls.
Because its a fable, the gravity-defying spins and leaps actually fit with the story and give it a magical tone though as it progresses they take it a bit too far (eg. a battle scene amongst the trees near the end seems to overdo it). Then there’s the fighting itself which is intense – easily 2-3 times faster than the Matrix and it flows far more naturally (you believe the moves are spontaneous whereas a lot of Keanu’s tricks felt rehearsed).
Combined with a variety of weapons and you get some really good scenes – the highlights being the big rooftop chase scene between a thief and Yeoh (the first action sequence of the movie), and a REALLY intense fight between Zi-Yi and Yeoh in a training shrine about 2/3 of the way in. That last scene is about ten minutes long, extremely fast and is arguably one of the most brutal one-on-ones caught on film.
Despite a few potential difficulties to translate over to Western audiences, this is one of those films (like “Run Lola Run”) last year which should do big business worldwide. It’s a truly glorious production which deserves the praise it gets and is a must see on the big screen. Ang Lee has brought an ancient legend alive in one of the year’s best.