If only I could be that nimble, I never would have been caught sneaking back into the house as a teenager!
Screenplay By: James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai, & Hui-Ling Wang
Directed By: Ang Lee
Wo hu cang long was a sort of phenomenon back in 2000. It was viewed by certain people as a great achievement in cinema while others felt it was nothing but hype, and was actually derisive towards the martial arts movies it was modeled on. I never fell into either camp, I didn’t find it to be any great achievement but I also didn’t see the derisiveness towards martial arts movies in any way. Now, years later when I revisit Wo hu cang long I find a film that I didn’t quite grasp all those years ago. The martial arts epic is still there, but there is a lot hidden in the martial arts action and in the scenes where no action is taking place that I missed the first time around.
With this embarkation I found myself drawn to the fight sequences in Wo hu cang long for completely different reasons than the first time I witnessed them. They are beautiful to behold, with graceful feats that turn Wo hu cang long from a standard martial arts epic into a fantasy martial arts epic. But, it is amazing how each fight is choreographed to show where the characters are at during that point in the film. Princess Jen Yu is in complete control when she fights Yu Shu Lien at the beginning of the film; you can see that in her movements and her fluidity. Later when Jen is forced to confront Li Mu Bai for the first time you can sense how in awe she is with how erratic her fighting style becomes. Finally, when fighting in the eatery her fighting has become manic and out of control because she is a woman that has lost control of everything in her life and doesn’t see any way to bring it back under her thumb. The knowledge that the movie is actually being played out within the fights makes said fights even more beautiful and wondrous to lay your eyes on.
Another area where Wo hu cang long shines is in the treatment of the character of Li Mu Bai. He isn’t your everyday hero and the movie never treats him as such. When he first arrives to fight there is a palpable sense of awe in the air around him and that follows him throughout the entire movie in every fight, and in every interaction he partakes in. There are many superhero movies that don’t manage to get the awe inspiring hero aura as perfect as Wo hu cang long does with Li Mu Bai. That awe inducing aura makes his eventual death all the more sorrowful, because he holds that aura until the very end. Because of that you always believe he will survive and overcome the poison. But, it’s not to be and in the most adroit irony he dies having never fulfilled his love for Yu Shu Lien. His death destroys his aura of awe and shows that all he had was his aura because life and his role in it denied him everything that he ever wanted.
As much as some people may disagree, and some people don’t even view this as valid criticism, Wo hu cang long does drag a bit in the beginning. The story takes a tad too long to get going, and it could have used a few more moments of respite in-between the fights. I loved how most of the fights were punctuated by moments of silence, telling the audience that it’s okay to stop and take a breath. However, I wish they would have spread the fights out a little bit more and I would have liked to have seen more from the Lo character. His arc with Jen Yu ends up a little underdeveloped because Lo is never given time enough to fully develop. Be forewarned that the subtitles can be hard to decipher at times, yellow was not the best choice. But, that may have just been a product of the IFC broadcast and not the movie itself, so your experience may be different than mine.
If you are going to see one martial arts epic then I would highly suggest enveloping yourself in Wo hu cang long. It will fascinate those who are merely interested in jaw dropping fights, but there is so much more to be found within its fantastic settings (I haven’t even bothered to mention how beautiful the cinematography is for instance). Wo hu cang long is perhaps the most complete martial arts epic to ever hit the screen with a story that is strong enough to rival the fights, and a story that actually pushes the fights along. Wo hu cang long needs to be *insert hyperbole here* by anyone who is already a fan of martial arts movies and is looking for something different. They fight on wispy trees, how can you go wrong with that?