Foreign language movies don’t have a particular good time at the Academy Awards. Even though a handful of them are well considered and given this or that award, very few ever contended for the major Best Picture Oscar. Still, in 2001, Ang Lee’s CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON came close. In a batch that included Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC, CHOCOLATE and ERIN BROCKOVICH, the Oscar went to Ridley Scott’s powerhouse GLADIATOR. Even though I liked GLADIATOR I have also been very critical of it. I will speak of that movie in another occasion, but one thing I absolutely must tell you: CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is by far the better movie. With Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in the roles of their lives, and Zhang Zyiy in a refreshingly stunning performance, this Chinese-spoken movie is brilliantly revisiting the Chinese Martial Arts genre, which people who know my books know I enjoy.
It’s been a few decades since Bruce Lee’s Kung-fu movies conquered the West. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of many talented artists as Jackie Chan or Jet Li. I particularly liked the low-budget Hong Kong phase of Jackie Chan, who was both funny and skillful. Kung-fu movies are a lot like musicals as if you are watching the performance of dancers in carefully choreographed moves, but there’s a kind of life and death tension that gets your attention. And Jackie Chan has a lot of Charlie Chaplin in him as well. But the best movie I’d seen on Kung-fu was ENTER THE DRAGON with Bruce Lee at his best. Until, of course, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. In this movie, Ang Lee picked up most of the Kung-fu movie tropes and made a serious dramatic movie with them. After this one there were several others, like HERO or THE HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS, but CROUCHING TIGER was the first, I believe.
One other interesting aspect of the movie, for those of you who know about writing, is its structure. Most movies nowadays, and most writing in the West, have an Aristotelian 3-Act structure. But in the East they use a different structure called Kishotenketsu – a 4-Act structure. This includes a third act that brings something new to the story and propels it into another dimension. Let me illustrate it with this movie.
In the first act we discover the characters: Li Mu Bai is a retiring legendary warrior who wants to give up his sword Green Destiny and rest, maybe even live his love with his friend Yu Shu Lien. But the sword is stolen by a young woman, Jiao Long, who has secretly learned Kung-fu from the criminal Jade Fox who is posing as her long-time nanny. The Jade Fox loaves Li Mu Bai and all he represents and the young woman wants to use the stolen sword to flee from an arranged marriage and become an outlaw herself – free and independent. So this is a classic first act, presenting the main characters and conflict and the catalyst to the adventure.
In the second act we see how Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien find the stolen sword and expose the Jade Fox. But in recovering the sword, Li Mu Bai finds that the young thief could be a worthy student of his art, someone to teach before he retires altogether. She resists. But without the sword, she is compelled to accept the marriage and do her duty. In this second act, the obstacles seem more visible and the goals of the protagonists more difficult to achieve.
But then we have a third act that throws the story into another path. Luo Xiao Hu, a thief from the desert, tries to stop Jiao Long’s marriage and take her with him. We also learn that they were both lovers in the past, at a time the young woman was kidnapped in the desert. This new storyline turns the story upside down and we start understanding why Jiao Long is so keen in getting her freedom.
In the fourth act, Jiao Long steals the sword again and flees alone into the wilderness, trying to find her place in the world. The beautiful end of the movie moves me every time I watch it and I will avoid spoiling it for everyone who still hasn’t seen this incredible film. But the key to understanding the core of the story is the love tale, of course.
Narrative structure, as Language (see my take on ARRIVAL), also determines our behavior, the way we see things and the way we act. This 4-Act structure seems less worried with showing the outer conflict of the characters and more focused on the motivations and developments of the inner conflict. This is interesting. It’s also a different perspective on narrative. And as I mentioned before, I think, the richness of perspectives improves us all. Looking for alternatives and other ways of thinking is also an attitude. Something we could and should commit to. Solving our inner tensions and fears allows us to discover new things, new ways, new ideas. I have been thinking for a while on writing a 4-Act story. I’m still not there, but I’m getting closer. What do you think?