When the auditorium at an off the ring road multiplex is almost full on a cold midweek night, you know you are watching a box office hit. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Chinese language epic that has captured and enthralled its audiences. But despite its stunning combat scenes this is no martial arts movie.
It is a tragic drama whose characters strive for personal freedom, fulfilment, and love between equals within a society ordered by rigid hierarchy, warrior codes and feudal obligations. Combatants endeavour to determine their own fates, but in doing so they descend into a conflict whose outcome threatens them all. The warrior ethic is in reality polluted by venality and pomposity, while its nefarious underworld feeds off the commercial interests of the nobles.
Here duty is revealed as little more than a guise for compliance, not least for the three women who form the crux of the drama. Nor does compliance bring reward. Even the criminal character of the assassin, Jade Fox, is forged by her refusal to accept the submissive role expected of her. The great expanses of red desert, the green sea of treetops swaying in the breeze, and the white ocean of mountain cloud convey a sense of the freedom to which the human actors themselves aspire.
Ang Lee's film is a hymn to that aspiration, a magnificent drama spanning cultures, language and time.