Viewer Guide: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Robot & Frank

May 8, 2019 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 CLASSIC | CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON

This week’s classic is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the martial arts adventure fantasy from 2000 directed by Ang Lee.

Based on the fourth novel from the five-part “Crane-Iron” series by Chinese author Wang Dulu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon created an international sensation upon its release, simultaneously managing to revitalize interest in the martial arts genre, as well as achieving worldwide box office success. Set in the 1700s during China’s final imperial Qing Dynasty, Chow Yun-fat stars as Li Mu Bai, a master swordsman of the fictional Wudan martial arts sect, named for a mountainous region in northwestern China. Mu Bai has abruptly left his deep meditation at Wudan Mountain to seek out Yu Shu Lien, a fellow Wudan master played by Michelle Yeoh, who now heads up her father’s business transporting valuable shipments. Mu Bai and Shu Lien have long harbored romantic feelings for one another, but their relationship has remained chaste to respect the memory of Mu Bai’s closest friend, who was engaged to Shu Lien before his death in battle. Although haunted by his inability to avenge the murder of his Wudan master by the renegade bandit Jade Fox, Mu Bai has grown weary of his warrior life, and has decided to relinquish his 400 year-old sword, “Green Destiny.” Mu Bai asks for Shu Lien’s help in safely delivering his legendary weapon as a gift to their mutual mentor Sir Te in Peking.

Warmly welcomed, Shu Lien soon encounters another recently arrived guest in Sir Te’s household, a demure young governor’s daughter named Jen Yu, played by Zhang Ziyi, who is soon to be married. Fascinated by Mu Bai’s famous Green Destiny blade, Jen Yu is also envious of Shu Lien’s unusual life as an independent woman, confiding her reluctance to get married before being able to live “the life she wants.” However, nothing much escapes the watchful eye of Jen Yu’s stern governess, played by Cheng Pei-Pei, who scolds her seemingly naïve young charge for associating with a disreputable woman like Shu Lien. But as the city settles down for the night, the Green Destiny sword is stolen by a mysterious masked thief, whose extraordinary Wudan fighting prowess eludes all attempts at capture. Suspicions soon arise that Jade Fox may be behind the plot, with Mu Bai and Shu Lien reuniting once again in pursuit of the missing Green Destiny.

Originating from an ancient Chinese poem, the title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon symbolically references “a place or situation with unseen masters.” Although many Hong Kong martial arts films had filled Chinatown film theaters as well as a few downtown movie palaces since the Seventies, no film in the genre had ever enjoyed even a fraction of the rapturous critical reception and US domestic box office of Crouching Tiger. After the sleeper success of his 1993 romantic comedy The Wedding Banquet, director Ang Lee’s eclectic career had kicked into high gear with a diverse roster of acclaimed films that included Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. But with Crouching Tiger, Lee finally had the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream of directing a martial arts epic—yet one in his own refined cinematic style, encompassing both the action scenes that audiences loved, as well as referencing poetic themes of enlightenment and transcendence that comprise the philosophical underpinnings of the martial arts discipline. A Chinese-American international co-production, the film was modestly budgeted at $17 million, but Lee was able to achieve maximum production value by shooting the film entirely in China. Both Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi drew on their early training as ballet dancers for the elaborate fight sequences, with the harness wiring that enabled their extraordinarily boundless leaps digitally removed during post-production. In addition to a host of international film honors, the film received ten Academy Award nominations—the most for any foreign film until ROMA recently tied it in 2019—ultimately winning for Best Foreign Language Film, art direction, cinematography and Original Score by composer Tan Dun.

REEL 13 INDIE | ROBOT & FRANK

This week’s indie is Robot & Frank, a 2012 science-fiction comedy drama directed by Jake Schreier.

Although set sometime in the not too distant future, Robot & Frank presents the achingly and increasingly familiar situation of a stubbornly independent eighty-something whose memory lapses may be signaling the end of his ability to live safely on his own. But as played by the always magnetic Frank Langella, this particular senior—also named Frank—isn’t your average geriatric. While to all outward appearances Frank seems like a predictably grouchy old man, his son and daughter Hunter and Madison—played by James Marsden and Liv Tyler—know better, and are still coping with the emotional baggage from Frank’s years of being an absentee Dad due to his career as…a high end cat burglar. But at the film’s open, Frank’s unusual career seems to be very much a thing of the past, with both adult children growing weary of worrying about Frank living alone.

And so—remember, we’re in the future—Hunter comes up with an innovative technological solution: a personal caregiver in the form of a maddeningly insistent robot, a device to make sure Frank eats right while keeping an all-around eye on his daily schedule. Frank initially objects to the constant presence of his computerized “big brother,” until one day he realizes his robot companion may be able to offer him help in ways he hadn’t previously imagined.

Also featured in supporting roles are Susan Sarandon as a beguiling town librarian, and Jeremy Strong as a wealthy young developer who becomes Frank’s new neighbor—and nemesis. And sharp ears will recognize the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as Frank’s robot minder.

When Robot & Frank was first released in 2012, the idea of a personal live-in, high-tech helper seemed just this side of science-fiction, but to anyone who has had the unnerving experience of visiting someone who barks out orders such as “put on some music” to someone not there, the film takes on an eerie prescience about the future into which we’re heading. Internet search services like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home have now become close to being standardized features of daily life, so the slightly futuristic world of Robot & Frank is more or less already here, albeit in a slightly different form.

The film’s parallel exploration of the frailty of human memory alongside the vulnerability of computer memory creates a poignant contrast, and a cautionary reminder that all memory can still be easily be “erased,” whether by age or by human interference. Marking the feature film debuts of both screenwriter Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier, the duo met at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, joining forces to expand Ford’s NYU thesis project into the feature length script for Robot & Frank. During production, the robot suit proved to be so hot and uncomfortable to wear that a second performer was recruited for two days of shooting. Originally working on the film as a PA, Frank Langella’s nephew was ultimately pressed into service to provide Langella with the robot’s on-set dialogue during their scenes together. Keeping it in the family, I guess, even in the digital era.

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