The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Swords fighting at its best in the top of a bamboo tree

with 26 comments

Do you like sword fighting scenes in movies? There was a time when I didn’t. I thought of them as boring fillers, like most of the car chases. Something you patiently waited for to be over so the plot could move along.

This was before I picked up training Japanese swords art, iaido. Nowadays I’m always up for movie fights, whether it’s elegant fencing or brutal bashing with heavy two hand swords. If it’s good, it’s as graceful and enjoyable to watch as a ballet. And if it’s bad, I can feel smug about it, thinking that the people who made that movie apparently are clueless.

With my newborn interest for this form of martial arts, I finally got around to catch up with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, more than a decade after everyone else.

Beautiful fighting
I couldn’t really have wished for anything more beautiful in the terms of fighting. Take that scene in the top of a bamboo tree, smoothly bending from side to side under the weight of the antagonists with soft flute and violin in the background. From an action standpoint it’s maybe not all that exciting, but it will stay in my memory as one of the coolest pieces of sword fighting I’ve ever seen.

However, what surprised me most wasn’t the fighting. It was all the other stuff. For some reason I had assumed that this film would contain more or less non-stop fighting. If there was a plot and character development, it would just serve as a means to transport us from one arena to the next.

In the very start it seemed as if I would be right. Here they were, making a hullabaloo about a certain super fantastic legendary sword. And there came the thief who stole it, and the next moment they were fighting. I thought: “so this is what it’s going to be like. They’ll fight about that sword all through the movie. The different warlords are going to settle who’s in charge.”

But then the movie started to twist. And it twisted again, because this wasn’t following the standard model for how you tell a story, at least not in the part of the world where I live. Before I knew it, it had turned into a love story. Or rather two love stories, to be correct. That wasn’t quite what I had expected. But I like to be surprised, so I didn’t mind.

Holding up well
As I said, it’s been a few years since this movie came out and you might wonder how well it hold up for a first-time watcher. Pretty well, I’d say.

Of course there has been a technical development the last few years and I imagine it could be possible to make the flying in the air look a little bit more believable. But again: it’s supposed to be over-the-top anyway, so the silliness of it isn’t a huge problem anyway.

What still makes it work for me is the beautiful cinematography and how it makes swords fighting into poetry rather than horror and gore. Especially the closing shot, which I won’t reveal in case there is someone more who has managed to miss out this movie, will stay with me forever. And of course I adored the bad ass female sword fighters, who seemed to grow stronger and better as they aged. That’s something to take inspiration from!

My biggest regret is that I watched it on a small screen at home. I think it’s one of those movies that gain a lot from a bigger format. Here’s to that I can persuade my local film club to including it in one of their future programs.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, Ang Lee, TW, 2000) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

May 9, 2012 at 1:00 am

26 Responses

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  1. I still wish I could’ve seen this on the big screen. It’s visually beautiful. It’s got amazing fight scenes and complex characters. It’s the one Ang Lee films I’ve yet to write a proper review on. I’m going to hold on to that when I decide to do an Auteurs piece on him early next year.

    Steven Flores

    May 9, 2012 at 1:25 am

    • Lucky for me, I got to see this on the big screen when it came out originally. It looks good on the smaller tv set, but the movie theater makes those big wide shots of the forests and desert much more stunning.

      Even after all the other films he has made, when I think of Ang Lee this is the one I think of first.

      Oh, and I doubt the flying scenes would look that much ‘better’ if made today. I believe the idea was to do as much of the work in camera as possible and use CGI to just remove the wires. This was as much an homage to the Hong Kong style of films as an extension of them.


      May 9, 2012 at 2:48 am

      • I don’t really dislike the flying, it just looks a little… funny. And I’m envious about you seeing it as it came out!


        May 9, 2012 at 7:32 am

    • Early next year! Wow, you really plan ahead! I don’t even know what I’ll be writing about the next day. 🙂
      I’m sure it will be very well crafted and thought out as usual. You put the rest of as ut shame.


      May 9, 2012 at 7:30 am

  2. It’s a gorgeous film, and I loved that they had a badass older female fighter too. (If only she’d been in full platemail 🙂 ).

    I’d put Hero on the to-see list if you liked this one also.


    May 9, 2012 at 6:30 am

    • Haha, full platemail! If she could fly around the way she does in that dress, it would be truly impressive. 🙂


      May 9, 2012 at 7:33 am

  3. I don’t know… I loved the action, but struggled with the characters. A beautiful film, for sure, but for me, an empty one emotionally.

    Rodney Twelftree

    May 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    • I liked the love stories, even if I can see why you’d think of them as a little bit shallow. The entire movie also feels a bit foreign, alien, keeping you at a distance. Which it actually has in common with the anime I’ve seen. I admire it and love the beauty, I’m intrigued but I’m not quite as emotionally into it I think as I am into movies from my own part of the world. But then again: you don’t always need to be that to like a movie I think.


      May 9, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      • True, Jess. It’s easy to enjoy a film even if you don’t have an emotional connection with what’s going on. To clarify my original statement: CTHD is a great film, and one I’d heartily recommend to anyone, but the emotional investment you’ll have would depend on your ability to overcome inherent societal differences between the Asian and the Western.

        Rodney Twelftree

        May 9, 2012 at 3:03 pm

  4. Glad you finally came around watching it. I remember enjoying it very much when I watched it (in the theatre no less if I remeber correctly), mostly impressed with Ang Lee from whom I hade not anticipated such a joyous movie.


    May 9, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    • I’ve watched Brokeback mountain and Sense and Sensibility as well. I fail to see the red thread between those movies – apart form that they’re all good. 🙂


      May 9, 2012 at 8:02 pm

  5. One of me all-time favorites, and hands-down me favorite sword fightin’ scene. First time I saw it, we had no idea what ta expects. When folks started runnin’ up walls we was all “whoa! this is different….” Definitely one fer ta see on the big screen, if’n ya can.


    May 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    • I’d really love to! It’s a shame it took me so long to see it. But now I have several other suggestions I should go on and watch as well. I believe I might like this genre.


      May 9, 2012 at 9:33 pm

  6. It’s interesting, I grew up watching films like this with my Chinese grandmother, so when CTHD came out, it really wasn’t anything new or groundbreaking and I couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal. But now I’m glad that it exists because not only is it a solid film in its own right, but it also serves as an excellent gateway to the genre for those who wouldn’t normally be exposed to it.

    If you are open to suggestions I think you might also like, Tsui Hark’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, Zhang Yimou’s HERO, and Wong Kar Wai’s ASHES OF TIME

    Bonjour Tristesse

    May 10, 2012 at 2:19 am

    • Yes, I think it’s a nice gateway or at least it works on me. You may wonder why this movie succeeded so well in the west. Was it a matter of hitting the right tones in the marketing? Luck?
      I’m definitely up for more suggestions so thank you for that!


      May 10, 2012 at 7:40 am

      • Looking back now, I think a combination of the big budget (there’s no way some of the older films with a better story but cheap cheesy effects could have the same appeal), a director who already had some Hollywood success, and two actors who the audience could recognize from previous western productions, were what made this one marketable.

        Bonjour Tristesse

        May 10, 2012 at 8:06 am

  7. Great review, Jessica. I remember seeing this when it cam out and not liking it at all. Granted, I was about 11 years old, so a rewatch is in order. I bet I’d enjoy it now.


    May 10, 2012 at 6:32 am

    • Haha, if you were that young I can imagine it wasn’t your cup of tea. It’s really quite slow in periods.


      May 10, 2012 at 7:38 am

  8. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was and is one of my favourite films. I saw it I think 3 times in the cinema back when it came out, and I was just enthralled by it. I think I was attracted to the “otherness” of it, but not so alien it was incomprehensible.

    I remember being so glad there wasn’t an “everyone lives happily ever after” ending. I think this film was one of the first where I realised how deep an effect tragedy can have on me.

    Lewis Maskell

    May 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    • Three times! Wow! Then you really know the ins and outs of this film! I think you’re spot on about the “otherness” of it without being so alien that it’s incomprehensible.

      Thanks for sharing your fond memories of this!


      May 11, 2012 at 12:43 am

  9. I wish I’d seen this in the cinema instead of my somewhat smaller TV screen. I think I was as taken away with it all as you were Jessica. It is a beautifully put together film. Think I need to make an effort to see it again. Your post has reminded me just how great it is.


    May 11, 2012 at 11:06 am

    • I’m sure it will hold up for you if you watch it again. It felt timeless and as something that I could watch again one day, but preferrably on a bigger screen.


      May 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

  10. If you liked the cinematography and sword fighting in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon then you’ll love it in Hero. I literally just reviewed these two films, plus House of Flying Daggers, and all three are stunning in their visuals and in their story. If you are interested, here is the parent post for all three:


    May 12, 2012 at 1:09 am

    • Thank you! I had missed out your reviews. Very cool! They make me excited for watching Hero!


      May 12, 2012 at 8:44 am

  11. […] sedan den hade premiär, men det var ett bra tag sedan. Hade det inte varit för texterna hos Jessica och Jojjenito hade det kanske dröjt ännu längre. Nu blev jag påmind om att tretton år inte […]

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