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Friday Film Review: Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

Wo hu cang long [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon] (2000)
Genre: Wuxia/Historical Action/Adventure/Fantasy/Romance
Grade: amazing

Does the term “martial arts film” make you cringe and think of badly dubbed “Kung Fu” movies. If that’s kept you from trying this film, then rethink. This is a gorgeous film – on so many levels. There is so much to it beyond the basic surface plot – not that that isn’t interesting – but it’s a film I think people could study and watch many times and still find new things to think about.

Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is sending his sword, The Green Destiny, to an old friend Sir Te (Lung Sihung) in an effort to free himself of what he feels is holding him back from reaching spiritual fulfillment. He entrusts the sword to Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) who runs a security company. She takes it to Beijing and finds that Sir Te is hosting the Yu family whose aristocratic daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is about to be married. The sword is stolen that night. Now Li and Shu Lien must retrieve the weapon and avenge Li’s old Wudan master who was killed by a criminal known as Jade Fox. But what does Jen have to do with all this and how will she affect everyone in the story?

The actual plot is more complicated than this but it’s hard to boil it down to a brief summary and not give every thing away. And I think the first time you see this, you just need to sit there and watch it. Then watch it a few more times to catch more and more things about it. Then read what people have to say about the deeper meanings and philosophical aspects of what’s going on. Or not, if you just want to enjoy the visual beauty of the film.

The martial arts scenes are stunning even without the wire work that, no pun intended, elevates them to a whole new level. Watch the characters dazzle you with the conventional moves then soar to the rooftops, or treetops – when it moves to a bamboo forest. Jen even manages to almost destroy a restaurant when she tangles with a group of men determined to teach her a lesson.

And don’t miss the desolate beauty of the Western province where Jen’s romantic past comes to light. Or the waterfall over which Li throws the Green Destiny after the fight in the forest. Or the breathtaking mountain from which Jen meets her destiny. Or the colorful spectacle of the wedding. The entire film is a visual treat.

And don’t let any dislike of subtitles turn you off. The film can also be watched dubbed and I think that whoever was in charge did a great job of capturing the emotions the actors are portraying. No wooden voices here. The music is also fantasic, backing up the action without taking over.

“Wo hu cang long” has also served as a gateway to me to other Asian films including “House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero,” “Happy Times,” and “In the Mood for Love.” I’m salivating to get my hands on “Chi Bi.”
Revenge, love, longing, desire to break out of a conventional life, exploration of the roles of women, kickass action sequences, philosophical meanings of life and choices – the film has got them all.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

37 Comments

  1. Mina Kelly
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 04:42:47

    This is beautiful film, and one of the first Asian films I ever watched (I don’t know about the US, but in the UK it was shown in cinemas and opened up the market for the new wave of martial arts films that’s followed). I really enjoyed it, but even now I can’t really say I understood it. I did find the subtitles tended to miss off character’s names or rename them, so sometimes when one character called to another it would be not only by a name not used in the subs so far, but it wouldn’t be subtitled itself. I normally come down on the subs side of the sub/dub argument, but this is one film I think I might rewatch dubbed.

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  2. Sandy James
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 05:27:05

    I heard so much about this movie when it was first in theaters that I went to see it the first week it was out. Maybe it was all the talk about how great it was, but to me, it was a big letdown. Beautiful visuals, great special effects, but… It left me shrugging over why everyone loved it that much… A solid C for me.

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  3. Jessica Andersen
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 06:18:27

    This is one of the very few movies (er, two, along with the Red Violin) where I prefer the subtitled version. Friday win for me :)

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  4. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 06:46:28

    @Mina Kelly: I can’t say I totally understand the ending. When I began working on a review for it, I did some Internet searching and came up with a couple of sites that attempt to explain it in terms of philosophical discussions and Chinese culture. I’m sure I’m still missing a lot of the fine points of the film which is why I didn’t include any of that here. But it’s a film I can watch over and over and hopefully, one day it’ll all make sense.

    As for the names, I noticed that Sir Te’s name never sounded like it was spelled in the subtitles.

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  5. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 06:55:00

    @Jessica Andersen: The first few times I watched the film, I used the subtitles. Then I noticed there was a dubbed English language option and I tried that. In the edition I own, the two aren’t exactly the same but both are well done. And once I get immersed in the action, I don’t even notice the fact that the sound doesn’t match the actors’ facial movements.

    I wanted to mention that there are several options for non-Chinese speakers to view the film in case anyone prefers one way over the other.

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  6. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 06:58:43

    @Sandy James: LOL, I totally understand where you’re coming from Sandy.

    It took me a long time to first watch it and by that point, I’d heard the superlatives and some of the negatives. I rented it with more of a “okay, let’s just see what all the fuss is about” viewpoint which I think helps me enjoy overly hyped films.

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  7. LG
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 08:28:13

    My mom and I saw this in the theater not long after it first came out in the US. We both enjoyed it…up until the ending. I really wanted a happy ending, darnit.

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  8. Elise Logan
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 08:29:06

    I wasn’t so thrilled with the ending, but I enjoyed this movie. I prefer – strongly prefer – Iron Monkey.

    E

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  9. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 09:55:23

    @Elise Logan: Are you talking about the 1993 movie that Tarantino redid? There’s also a 1977 movie listed at Netflix.

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  10. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 10:00:40

    @LG: Yeah, I wanted a happier ending too but I can live with the one that Lee gives us. Sometimes bittersweet just suits a film or book better for me.

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  11. Jusy
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 10:34:14

    I love this movie and the other ones you mentioned. Okay, I just love Chinese martial art movies.

    Some others you might want to try is Red Cliff (American version 2hr+, international version 4hs) and Once in China movies (Jet Li as Wong Fei Hung).

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  12. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 11:15:13

    @Jusy: “Chi Bi” = “Red Cliff” and it’s listed with a March release date at Netflix. Am mucho excited about this. Which version have you seen?

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  13. Kim
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 11:49:54

    Your review comes just in time as the Chinese New Year, Year of the Tiger, starts on Sunday, February 14. I am looking forward to the celebrations in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

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  14. Kristina Cook
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 12:29:05

    I totally agree–beautiful film! I was *so* happy that my hubby “made” me watch it when it first came to DVD. And call me shallow, but I could happily watch Chow Yun-Fat on the big-screen ALL day. I love the Anna and the King movie with him and Jodie Foster.

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  15. Sandy James
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 14:31:26

    @LG:

    I really wanted a happy ending, darnit.

    I agree. I’m too much a romance writer/reader at heart. I demand my HEA.

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  16. Janine
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 14:59:57

    I loved this movie. Amazing visuals (I am really glad I saw it on the big screen). The whole cast was great and Zhang Ziyi was especially fabulous in it. And it’s so romantic — though I was sad about the ending.

    Ang Li is one of my favorite movie directors. He is probably best known for “Brokeback Mountain” now, and he also directed “Sense and Sensiblity” but the lesser known “The Ice Storm” is terrific (It’s pretty dark and tragic though) and the even lesser known, heartwarming “Eat Drink Man Woman” is probably my favorite of his films (the ones I’ve seen).

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  17. Gennita Low
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 15:14:45

    I highly recommend the full four hours of Red Cliff, but it can be confusing to those who aren’t into Chinese mythological history.

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a phrase that means “something hidden.” It’s the hidden in society structures and in relationships that might spring forward. Jen, the heroine has the ‘dragon’ in her name and Lo, her lover, has the ‘tiger.’ They could be seen as the springboard that bring out what is hidden in the movie:

    1) societal values–Jen was expected to act a certain way and to live a certain life. She chose not to.

    2) Her choices also affected the hidden lives of Mu Bai and Shu Lien, who both have lived lives the way that was required of them–Taoist feudal philosophy. We see Mu Bai learning what his hidden dragon is, why he couldn’t be happy in that meditative light he’d achieved. His and Shu Lien’s chasing Jen is metaphorical–they were chasing their dragons (their lost youth, what they could have chosen, etc.)

    3) The ending is typical Chinese “romance,” bittersweet and Taoist paradox. By jumping off, she gives the leap of faith to be with her lover but the story he told was about the man who floated away, never to be seen again, knowing his wish came true” (if memory served me right). So, did she get her wish? If so, how, when she’d float away, never to be seen again? ;-P

    This movie was beautiful but was actually very “Westernized.” It didn’t do very well in Asia. I remember my sisters telling me to skip it, that it didn’t hold water against some of the kungfu romances we’ve watched. I sort of agree because the pacing was very slow, compared to a lot of the great wu-xia movies (I’m a fan, can’t you tell?!) but it’s peobably because Ang Li was telling a story with Western audience in mind.

    House of the Flying Dragon is a better story, imho, not so heavy in its Taoist themes. But remember, it’s a Chinese “romance.”

    Oh, btw, for those fans in the know, the woman who played Jen’s Si-fu is the great Chien Pei Pei, the first kick-ass wu-xia actress from way back. She was famous for the exact same scenes Jen depict in Crouching–the fight with the tavern bullies comes to mind. Anyway, Chien Pei Pei is the original, man.

    Sorry for taking up so much space. Got carried away.

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  18. Gennita Low
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 15:20:40

    @Gennita Low:

    Again, I can’t seem to edit in the new board. The whole screen becomes shadowy and won’t let me click on anything.

    Sorry for the typos/mistakes above.

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  19. che
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 16:07:01

    One of my favorite movies of all time. Loved the visuals, special effects, and the whole poetry-in-motion effect of the fight scenes. Jen (I think I recall the subtitles said Jin?) is lusciously beautiful.

    Loved Iron Monkey too.

    Huge Bruce Lee fan when I was younger.

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  20. Zoe Archer
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 17:46:18

    This is why I hate going to the movie theater–because I really don’t like sobbing like a fool in front of strangers, yet that’s exactly what I did when I saw this film. Still waiting for a Chinese film with a happy ending….

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  21. CD
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 19:27:25

    “Oh, btw, for those fans in the know, the woman who played Jen's Si-fu is the great Chien Pei Pei, the first kick-ass wu-xia actress from way back. She was famous for the exact same scenes Jen depict in Crouching-the fight with the tavern bullies comes to mind. Anyway, Chien Pei Pei is the original, man.”

    I agree completely. But I’m an old 70s Shaw Brothers girl at heart and find recent kung fu films too focused on the wire-work and not enough on the kung fu. Chien Pei Pei was originally a ballet dancer and she definitely moves with that sort of grace in her fight scenes – beautiful to watch. My favourite film of hers is “Come drink with me” (the one that Gennita Low mentioned with THE original tavern fight scene) but I also love “The Golden Swallow” which is very different stylistically but has a touching understated love story.

    I really liked Crouching Tiger but agree that it’s very much geared to a Western audience – a sort of wuxia “Sense and Sensibility”. However, if you do like it, it’s quite structurally similar to another wuzia classic “A touch of Zen”.

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  22. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 20:26:58

    @Janine: I adore his “Sense and Sensibility” but also like “Ride with the Devil,” “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “The Wedding Banquet.”

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  23. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 20:32:39

    @CD: In the commentary, Lee mentions how Chien Pei Pei is playing against type in this film.

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  24. Jayne
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 20:43:00

    @Gennita Low:

    that it didn't hold water against some of the kungfu romances we've watched. I sort of agree because the pacing was very slow, compared to a lot of the great wu-xia movies (I'm a fan, can't you tell?!) but it's peobably because Ang Li was telling a story with Western audience in mind.

    Can you give us any recs for better kungfu movies to try? And thanks for explaining some of the aspects of the film. This is what I meant by digging deeper to understand more about the film.

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  25. Likari
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 21:11:05

    @Gennita Low:

    Gennita, take up space any time with such a great comment!

    It’s been so long – I’m inspired to watch it again this weekend. I like it best with the subtitles. For me, the sound of the actors’ voices, not knowing the meaning, was beautiful in this movie.

    House of Flying Daggers was great too, but I loved the tragedy in this. Michele Yeoh can do no wrong!

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  26. Amy
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 22:32:12

    @Gennita Low:

    This movie was beautiful but was actually very “Westernized.” It didn't do very well in Asia. I remember my sisters telling me to skip it, that it didn't hold water against some of the kungfu romances we've watched. I sort of agree because the pacing was very slow, compared to a lot of the great wu-xia movies (I'm a fan, can't you tell?!) but it's peobably because Ang Li was telling a story with Western audience in mind.

    That’s what I thought, too. I grew up watching wu-xia movies, so I had different expectations when I heard about this movie and noted the gang of famous Chinese wu-xia actors/actresses. I was excited about the prospect of really introducing traditional Chinese wu-xia film to a larger audience in the U.S., something other than some of the more cheesy (but still entertaining) movie from the 70s that rerun on TV. Yes, the movie was visually stunning, but it was also so slow and artsy; it was obvious that Ang Li was targeting a more “Westernized” audience. It was just okay for me.

    I highly recommend the full four hours of Red Cliff, but it can be confusing to those who aren't into Chinese mythological history.

    I haven’t heard of this one. I guess I need to go check it out!

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  27. Gennita Low
    Feb 13, 2010 @ 09:44:22

    @Jayne:

    It’s been tough for me to catch up on some of the really popular ones after I came to the US. Like a few of the readers in the thread, I grew up watching Shaw brothers wuxia which is the kind understood by Asian audience–everything is almost always black and white and life is focused on revenge, honor, and obedience to Taoist laws.

    I hesitate ot recommend the classic ones, even Chien Pei Pei’s “Come Drink With Me” because they were made before wire work and the fighting is very stylized and slow, compared to today’s use of hightech camerawork. For those who are jonesing for the old wuxia, “come Drink With Me” is actually on Youtube ;-). With very bad subtitles, which is always fun.

    For the more recent movies, I do highly recommend Red Cliff, the long version. I’m not sure what they cut off in the international version but it might be confusing because there’s some exposition on the screen ala Star Wars’ beginning.

    There’s one scene between the two main protagonists dueling with their mandolin, a wuxia warriot art form, as they “tell” each other what was on their mind. That is a classic quxia trope, the warrior, in deep angst, communicating his soul for all to hear. The music was wonderful too.

    WARNING: One TSTL moment that might kill your love for the kickass female protagonist!

    I’d also recommend Jet Li’s Hero. The movie’s Rashomon wuxia-style. It’s all about intrigue, double-dealing, and power plays.

    Tony Leung’s Dragon Inn (Tony Leung is also in Red Cliff and the much talked about Lust, Caution (not wuxia but still an interesting character-driven love story)).

    For some old fashion wuxia, with some classic fun, Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master series can’t be beat.

    Michelle Yeoh’s Wing Chun. From the female wuxia warrior’s POV.

    Ashes of Time. Really slow–a love it or hate it kind of movie, but I suspect you might enjoy it.

    The Bride With White Hair, I & II. So campy and tragic, it’s an anti-dote to all that Jet Li heroic angst.

    I guess that’s a start?

    Also, a quick explanation of wuxia’s meaning might clarify what the genre is about. Wuxia means martial arts chivalry. That’s why in Crouching, you keep hearing about living under the laws of wuxia. If one wants to live like a warrior in “kong wu” (the martial arts underground world–not the best explantiona), one has to live under the laws of “wuxia.”

    Heroism
    Sacrifice, even to the point of suicide, for the name (saving face, etc.)
    Revenge
    Pure love

    As you can see, the elements are almost medieval knightish in concept. it’s very high fantasy but the rewards are high. The warrior who follows the path gain

    exceptional kungfu skillz (and I mean superhuman stuff)
    great ability to use his chi
    the respect of the whole known world
    usually end up with some powerful mystical weapon

    You see the above elements in Crouching, yes?

    Okay, didn’t mean to go on and on. Again.

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  28. Gennita Low
    Feb 13, 2010 @ 09:51:36

    @CD:

    Yes, Come Drink With Me is a favorite. You know what I miss? Those One Armed Swordsman movies with cute David Chiang ;). Those movies were so gory but I was just fascinated with his one-handed swordsplay.

    The thing is, the Old School movie stars were mostly trained in the traditional mo-si schools, with martial arts background. Today’s cute kids depend on wirework and CGI.

    I bet you love the HK TVB serial novellas. That is actually the place to start to actually enjoy wuxia and Chinese mythological history because they play out the drama and the romance. My favorite is still Norman Tsui’s “Reincarnation I” with its bittersweet rags-to-excellent warrior story with high jinx between three sects! I routinely go to YouTube to watch that old trailer because I loved that show so much.

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  29. Samantha
    Feb 13, 2010 @ 10:20:47

    The version I have which of course I can’t find to give details is actually 2 films, the first has subtitles and the second was filmed in english (not dubbed). Makes me wonder now if it’s not a special edition of some kind. I’ve watched both enough to have heard the differences but I believe it comes down to filming for a western audience and that the english language has so many more words for everything than any other language.

    Ang Lee is one of the few directors I own several films by, his are the type you can watch on mute and still get it and I love that.

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  30. CD
    Feb 13, 2010 @ 12:07:44

    “I hesitate ot recommend the classic ones, even Chien Pei Pei’s “Come Drink With Me” because they were made before wire work and the fighting is very stylized and slow, compared to today’s use of hightech camerawork.”

    Have to say that I much prefer that style – as you said, the actors then had martial arts backgrounds and if really does show in the beautifully choreographed fight scenes – they certianly feel a more more substantial and skillful than the usual wire-work/CGI that you tend to get nowadays. There was a season of shaw brothers films at the NFT in London and they titled it “Heroic Grace” which really captures the balletic quality of many of those fights. However, the older Shaw Brothers films do have a great deal of influence from Peking Opera so do tend to be rather stylised with a certain beat to the moves – similar to a group dance. I imagine therefore that they may not be as accessible to a modern Western audience.
    I do love the one-armed swordmans flicks – mostly because of the gorgeous David Chiang. However, I think Ti Lung is even more beautiful and seems to have a propensity to fight half naked in all his films – imagine all that coiled sinewy strength and control [fans self]… One of my favourite shaw brothers films is “Blood Brothers” with BOTH David Chiang and Ti Lung. I love the fight scene when they all meet for the first time – a friend told me that it kind of resembles a gay threesome pick up scene except with swords and maces and other spiky things ;-). Those films certainly do have spades of homoerotic tension! It's gets tragic quite quickly but has a great epic quality to it. Also, the classic “36 rooms of Shaolin” which is just technically stunning.

    Have to say that I was over the moon when Celestial Pictures started re-releasing those old classics on DVD…

    On the more (relatively) recent wire-work stuff, I would definitely second HERO, DRAGON INN, BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (first one only), and ASHES OF TIME. I would still urge people to see A TOUCH OF ZEN if you liked CROUCHING TIGER – absolutely beautiful film on all levels.

    Haven't seen RED CLIFF yet but it's on my list when I get back home – it's about bloody time John Woo went back to wuxia – the last one he did that I can remember was LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY. Terrible title and moderately terrible film but just so much fun and a platonic gay love story. I imagine RED CLIFF is a rather more angsty affair though…

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  31. Elise Logan
    Feb 13, 2010 @ 17:01:32

    @Jayne:

    I mean this one:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108148/

    So, yes, the 1993 one – which had nothing to do with QT – at least at the time. :)

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  32. Jayne
    Feb 13, 2010 @ 19:26:55

    Wow, thanks everyone for the title suggestions! That really helps me when I’m venturing into new territory. I’ve already got a lot of them in my Netflix queue but, bummer, some of them are the dreaded “save” which means who knows when they’ll ever be available.

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  33. ami
    Feb 15, 2010 @ 04:29:58

    It was pretty and all, but I really didn’t get the hype about why it was so great. Especially the wire work, I was laughing out of my seat, I felt it was so bad.

    Maybe because I grew up watching those tvb shows where the wirework is…less obvious? Or I’m inured to it, I dunno, but straight up flying up and down just made me shake my head.

    Plus I felt on the whole, the whole movie was about Jen going ME ME ME. Then she goes and does what she does at the end. I was like… you’re effing kidding me right?

    I think the best part for me was the super scene where she had the super sword, and Michelle Yeoh had to fight her picking up random weapons.

    I still really don’t get what people love about it(other than the cinematography)

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  34. Jayne
    Feb 16, 2010 @ 19:29:02

    @ami: Jen’s ME ME ME annoyed me the first two times I saw the film. Then I started to look into why she was all about ME and was able to cut her some slack. And I agree that the fight scene you mentioned as your favorite is fantastic.

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  35. Jayne
    Feb 16, 2010 @ 19:32:24

    Well, mega thanks to everyone who recommended “Iron Monkey” to me. It is the bomb. And then some. I’m in love with Woo-ping Yuen’s style.

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  36. Maura
    Feb 17, 2010 @ 15:09:31

    Iron Monkey (if we’re talking about the one released under Quentin Tarantino’s banner in the US a few years back, which is actually, confusingly, Iron Monkey 2) is one of my all-time favorites- the climactic fight is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, and I find Donnie Yen (who grew up in Malden, Massachusetts- his mother is a famous kung-fu master who focuses on wushu theater) to be an incredibly engaging performer.

    I do a lot better with lighter kung-fu movies (don’t know if they count as wuxia due to the lack of emphasis on the moral code mentioned above) like this one and another favorite, “Wing Chun” with Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, which is a light romantic comedy. I find I get very ground down by the “everybody loses” school of filmmaking, and some movies I’ve seen really feel to me like they didn’t feel like concluding the story, so rocks fall (or the inn sinks into the desert), everyone dies.

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  37. Jayne
    Feb 17, 2010 @ 15:31:15

    @Maura: Yes that is the Iron Monkey that I just watched. The description at Neflix makes it sound like Tarantino had fun with it and ruined it but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. He seems to revere it.

    The last fight scene, on the poles, was amazing! Donnie Yen is great but I enjoyed Rongguang Yu just as much. It was like getting two boxes of hand dipped chocolate truffles for the price of one.

    I want to see “Wing Chun!” But stupid Netflix doesn’t have it. Arrrrghhhh.

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