Though we often celebrate directors for their vision, it's rare that we think about that vision in terms of the scope of genre. That is to say, when we talk about a filmmaker's greatness, it is often intrinsically linked to a particular type of film (or films) that they make. We think of Steven Spielberg in terms of crowd-pleasing blockbusters and sentimental Oscar behemoths. We think of David O. Russell in terms of large-ensemble tilt-a-whirls hinged on the actors' unhinged performances. We think of Quentin Tarantino in terms of his genre pastiches that combine whatever he's passionate about at the moment. Of course, these filmmakers make other types of films (well, maybe not Tarantino), but these are the types of films that they are most famous for making.
And the more a filmmaker is grounded into their "type," the more us cinephiles tend to sing their praises as having a particular "vision." It's much easier to categorize a filmmaker as having something important to say if a sizable chunk of their filmography lies in the same genre or is thematically connected or has the same aesthetic. The more a director fans out into various genres and ideas, the less cinephiles tend to vaunt them as "artists." Unfortunately, these filmmakers often get tagged simply as "workmen," directors who simply show up to set, yell "action" and "cut," and turn out the product. For better or worse, these are the Ron Howards, the Ridley Scotts, and the Clint Eastwoods of the world.
(Interestingly, this only tends to apply to filmmakers post-1960; Golden Age of Hollywood directors tend to be praised by modern cinephiles even though many of them truly were only doing the work assigned to them by the studio. And this isn't to say that the "workmen" are all neglected by cinephiles; Steven Soderbergh may be the most celebrated genre-hopper of the 21st century).
In a filmography so varied, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands out for a number of reasons. The film still holds the record for highest-grossing foreign-language film in the United States, a remarkable feat for a nation that's so resistant to subtitles. It also stands out for it's use of balletic action, using the same "wire-fu" techniques that wowed audiences the previous year (1999) in The Matrix (the film's share a martial arts coordinator, Yuen Woo-ping). But the most interesting element of the film is how Lee plays with genre. While the film is meant to be an epic in the traditions of the Chinese wuxia genre, Lee borrows heavily from the narrative beats, characterizations, and visual iconography of the American Western.
More after the jump.
The film tells the story of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat), a wudang warrior who is seeking to leave battle in his past after years of trying (and failing) to avenge his master's death at the hands of Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei). He arrives in Beijing to present his friend Sir Te (Sihung Lung) with his famous sword, the Green Destiny. While in the city, he encounters Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a friend and fellow warrior whom he developed a mutual, unrequited affection for. Shu Lien agrees to take the sword to Sir Te, and meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a Manchurian aristocrat who wants to leave her arranged marriage for a life of adventure. However, a masked thief steals the Green Destiny one night, leading both Mu Bai and Shu Lien on one last adventure together, one that could lead them directly to Jade Fox.
Though the setting is certainly different, Lee also incorporates a fair amount of Western imagery in the film. An extended stretch of the second half, expanding on Jen's past and her illicit relationship with notorious bandit Dark Cloud (Chang Chen), takes place in the Gobi Desert, and Lee and cinematographer Peter Pau take full advantage of the landscape's red formations and blue skies. Images like the following immediately recall the Monument Valley pictures that John Ford made with John Wayne, instant Western icons that are synonymous with the genre:
Similarly, a late-film brawl between Jen and a group of men seeking to challenge her in a inn recalls the rough-and-tumble bar fights of a number of classic Westerns, complete with one unfortunate sap being thrown from the second floor in an image that could have easily been lifted from the 20th Century Fox backlot 60 years ago:
Of course, much of this is in the service of the relationship between Mu Bai and Shu Lien. At one point, Mu Bai is practicing alone, unaware that Shu Lien has come to speak to him. Mu Bai's moves are fluid and poised, each one flowing naturally into the next as if he has relinquished control of his body to some unseen force. The camera lingers behind Shu Lien for a few moments as she watches from the shadows, marveling, just as the audience is, at Mu Bai. It's a very romantic shot, encapsulating both the beauty of the choreography as well as the reasons that Shu Lien would be attracted to this lone warrior.
It culminates in the famous treetop showdown, but again, there's never a sense of urgent, "this is the climax!" immediacy. Instead, the choreography is fluid and graceful, the editing is painterly and deliberate, and Tan Dun's score opts for romantic cello chords instead of martial drums. It's an incredibly beautiful moment, one in which Lee is fully investing in the film's romanticism rather than creating a conventionally-thrilling action sequences. It's a moment that feels inspired by the Western genre and rooted in Chinese wuxia, yet synthesized into something that's completely its own. Lee may dabble in a variety of genres, but there's no denying he's a director completely in control of his own unique vision.