Whenever the topic of all-time favorite movie comes up, I'll give a different answer almost every time. There are a few films that keep popping up though: Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Dr Strangelove, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade… And, among that vaunted set of films is this one, a Kung-Fu masterpiece by the brilliant Taiwanese director Ang Lee.
The film, based on a Chinese novel from the 1930s, follows a set of legendary martial artists from the Giang Hu underworld during the Qing dynasty. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is contemplating retirement and can’t find peace due to his love for fellow wandering fighter Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). On a visit to Beijing, Li Mu Bai’s ancient and powerful Green Dragon Sword is stolen by Jun Yu (Ziang Ziyi), a martial arts prodigy who is also an aristocratic girl soon to have an arranged marriage with a man she doesn’t love. The evil Jade Fox, who killed Li Mu Bai’s master to steal a secret training manual, has trained Jen. There are also a few subplots involving Jen’s true love and an undercover police officer who has vowed to find and kill Jade Fox.
It sounds complex when I write it out like that, but it’s actual a very straightforward story that never gets in the way of a series of stunning fight scenes while also managing to give those scenes importance and thematic resonance. The characters can fight like superhumans, but they have a much harder time declaring their feelings and navigating conflicts between freedom and duty. The film also explores gender issues in a way that few action films have. All of the best fighters, except for Li Mu Bai, are women. There’s a nice parallel between Jen, who fights to follow her heart, and Shu Lien, who represses her feelings. Even the villainess, Jade Fox, finds her initial motivation in the Wudang school’s refusal to train women.
There’s plenty of interesting character and story work here, and I think that’s what most sets this apart from most other films in the genre. But, the fight scenes, with amazing wire work by Yuen Woo-Ping (who also did The Matrix) are also fantastic. There’s a real emphasis on the grace of the often weightless-seeming characters, and Lee does an excellent job of capturing the precision of the moves without losing the action. It’s a mixture of clarity and speed that very few directors (especially in the West) manage to capture.
On top of all of that the scenery is gorgeous, the characters’ backstories are rich and efficiently conveyed, and their relationships and fates are genuinely moving. I can’t really judge the dialogue; the subtitles come across a bit wooden, but that’s as close as I can come to a genuine complaint. I think this film is damn near perfect.
I do think this is another instance where we can play one of my least favorite games: “is it sf?” The fantasy elements are pretty clear, what with the characters flying all over the screen, but I would object that those are established conventions of another genre: wuxia (martial arts). It’s like saying that Sin City must be sf because its Noir conventions are unrealistic. By that logic, it’s a short leap to calling soap operas like General Hospital speculative fiction, because, well, they’re certainly not realistic fiction. But, as I’ve said before, I try not to get too caught up in that debate. It only bothers me here because it seems to ignore the existence of a genre with its own long history. That said, I can’t blame Hugo voters for recognizing a film that I truly love, which also happens to be the first non-English language film to ever win this category. I love this choice, and I'm sure I would have voted with the majority.