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Episode 143 - Gladiator vs. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (w/ Russ Fischer)

Episode 143 - Gladiator vs. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (w/ Russ Fischer)  

39 members have voted

  1. 1. Which film should enter The Canon?

    • Gladiator
      8
    • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
      31


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Amy and Russ close out Oscar Movie Month this week with the 2001 Best Picture winner and nominee respectively, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” vs. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” They break down the spectacle of “Gladiator,” noting the formula that brought it the Best Picture award plus Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar performance. Then, they discuss the game-changing action sequences of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as well as its main character’s imperfections and how it brought Chinese cinema to the world stage.

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Forget Gladiator, the real competition for Best Picture that year should have been between Crouching Tiger and Battle Royale. Gladiator was a mediocre, trite, modern peplum with utterly garbled fight scenes that had me leaving the theater feeling like the entire affair was a total waste of time (a few good performances aside).

 

Crouching Tiger, on the other hand, may not be the best wu xia swordplay film, but it is a great one, and one I revisit pretty regularly. The cinematography is stunning, the story and characters are engaging, and everyone involved is at the top of their game. Plus it introduced an entire generation to the joys of Chinese swordplay films and revitalized the genre at home and abroad. It was a gateway for so many to the works of King Hu, Tsui Hark, Chu Yuan and Chang Cheh.

 

Hell, even putting aside Crouching Tiger and Battle Royale, I’d have been happier seeing the Oscar go to The Foul King, Memento, American Psycho or In the Mood for Love, among others, rather than Gladiator.

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Best Picture nominees for 2000:

 

Chocolat

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Erin Brockovich

Gladiator

Traffic

 

I'd say CTHD is the class of that field, with Traffic being the next best choice (and Soderbergh did win Best Director for it).

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Sorry to get a little bit personal, but there's no way my vote on this one can't be personal.

 

I think most of us have that one movie we watched as a kid or young adult that completely broke open our understanding of what movies can be. For me that movie was Crouching Tiger. I saw it as a teenage boy, after years of watching (superficially) teenage boy-friendly kick-ass action flicks like Star Wars, The Matrix, X-Men, and yes, Gladiator. While Crouching Tiger offered plenty by way kick-ass action, what really brought me in was the grace of the action, the lushness of the colors, thematic subtext, and braided love stories with a true ache at the core. Crouching Tiger is nothing less than the movie that made me fall in love with movies. There's no way it doesn't get my vote.

 

As personal as my experience is, though, I don't know if it's all that unique. I saw Crouching Tiger in a packed theater at my local multiplex in the suburbs. For many, I bet it was the first non-American movie they'd seen in the theaters. (I know it was for me.) For Western moviegoers, it was likely their most accessible window into a culture -- or at least a culture's movie tastes -- from well beyond their own borders. At the very least the movie was a clearly personal gift from Ang Lee, a director perpetually eager to kick dirt on the line between East and West, a gift whose appeal transcends cultural and geographic barriers.

 

But most of all, Crouching Tiger deserves to enter the Canon because it remains a masterpiece of lyrical storytelling and filmmaking. It gently yet pointedly interrogates notions of honor, tradition, skill, gender, and class*. The characters, their motivations, and the action sequences they partake in all advance these themes naturally. Certainly more so than Gladiator, a just-okay action flick with listless performances and an insight-free script. Crouching Tiger is undoubtedly the best film of 2000 and, in my humblest of opinions, one of the greatest films ever made.

 

* Amy pointed out in the review how being belittled as a woman fuels Jade Fox as a villain, which is completely right. One thing I noticed on my rewatch is how class barriers fuel her anger in equal measure. Her resentment of Jen clearly begins when she learns her student has flourished beyond her teaching. It's later learned Jen -- an aristocrat -- is able to read the texts beyond the diagrams, a skill it's pretty safe to say had also been denied in Jade Fox's life. Jade Fox's villainy is as much a product of the society that shaped her as Li Mu Bai or Shu Lien's heroism. Her tragedy really hit me this time around.

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I agree that Gladiator had a lot of impact on the film industry, as discussed in the podcast episode, but let's not discount the impact of Crouching Tiger. Martial-arts movie imports exploded in the U.S. after this. In the years following, I was able to go to multiplexes and see movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, along with re-releases of stuff like Legend of the Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, and Once Upon a Time in China. Hong-Kong style wire work became ubiquitous in action movies. Granted, much of that can also be credited to The Matrix, but Crouching Tiger becoming another big hit helped propel this revolution along (and by the same token, you can say that Gladiator is on a continuum with Saving Private Ryan and other realistic/modernized period action movies).

 

Finally, I'd also say that Crouching Tiger did a whole lot to drive mainstream American audiences' acceptance of Asian actors in major roles, something that most people take as a given these days but that was certainly not very common at the time it was released. After that, there was no denying that Asian faces could sell tickets.

 

As for artistic/entertainment value, I think Gladiator is pretty decent and held up better than I expected, but in comparison it's no contest: Crouching Tiger wins by a mile. Gladiator moves in fits and starts, and it has a weird script that is pretty light on plot/characterization, yet is also somehow extremely wordy and results in a movie that is 2 1/2 hours long. The charismatic actors and Ridley Scott's hyper-aesthetic approach are carrying all the water here, but the story doesn't linger much after the movie is done. I'm also not sure entirely what it's trying to say about what Rome was "supposed" to be, given that the ending doesn't square too well with the battle at the start, where you're (I guess) rooting for the Roman army to conquer another country? I suppose this is intended as a way of setting up Maximus as a man who once believed in the system and by the end wants to crash it down, but it's muddled with his personal revenge story and a lack of context for what Rome under Marcus Aurelius was like. As an action/adventure yarn it's entertaining enough, but like much of Ridley Scott's work it struggles to land on a theme.

 

Crouching Tiger feels a bit slow to start, but the truth is that Ang Lee & company are taking their time to set things up so that the big moments later on have actual meaning. The film takes off into the stratosphere during the first Michelle Yeoh-Zhang Ziyi fight and never comes back down. It's a clean two hours but feels bigger and more epic than Gladiator ever does at 2 1/2. All of the character arcs are motivated and speak to theme, very little time wasted.

 

The hosts said that it was hard to determine a consistent theme to Ang Lee's work, but I'd say the thing that he has always been most interested in is how social pressures and expectations keep individuals from expressing their true selves. You can see this in Brokeback Mountain, Sense & Sensibility, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman, but it's probably stated most clearly and cleanly in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The visual metaphor is there right from the beginning, when Michelle Yeoh brings the sword into the city, and the camera lingers on her wagon wheels stuck deep in a well-worn rut in the concrete road, and the ambiguous conclusion with Zhang Ziyi flying through the air tells you that whether she lives or dies isn't the point: it's that she has a chance to be free and make her own choice.

 

Anyway, my vote is obvious: Crouching Tiger is the winner!

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First of all, it's been fantastic having Russ Fischer as a quasi-cohost for these four episodes. It almost made me wish he was a permanent cohost, but at the same time, the guest format has given us some truly magnificent, personal discussions, such as Matt Zoller-Seitz on Seconds or Cameron Esposito on The Matrix, and hopefully that continues next week with Ruben Östlund on Fat Girl and beyond (I'm still hoping my vision board can will an episode where Emily Yoshida talks about Persona into existence, since her piece on it last May was one of my favorite bits of film-writing in 2017). However, I would love to hear Russ as a regular guest, bravo and many thanks to him for these episodes.

 

I don't have too much to add about these films, I think Amy and Russ summed it up pretty well. I find Gladiator to be a fine film, but Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a better film. The action scenes in Gladiator are strong, proficient, and clangy, while the action scenes in Crouching Tiger are breathtaking and captivating. The relationships in Gladiator seem forced, while the relationships in Crouching Tiger seem incredibly natural and moving. And finally, more happens in 2 hours in Crouching Tiger than happens in the 155 minutes (171 for the extended version!) of Gladiator, without the pace ever feeling rushed.

 

I greatly enjoyed the discussion of judging actors in foreign language films, because this is something I've thought about for years. Without understanding the language, I have no idea about how the lines are being delivered, not just concerning accent or pronunciation, but cadence and enunciation as well. Whenever I watch a foreign language film, I always wonder if someone is making a really weird acting choice that I'd never pick up on, like delivering lines with what amounts to a Christopher Walken speech pattern in that language, or taking a big accent swing, or something like that. So it's really tough to know how an actor is doing in their dialogue, but Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chow Yun Fat all have such great emotional physicality in their performances that at times, even in dialogue-heavy scenes, you can know what's happening even without the subtitles. Again, without being able to analyze line delivery, I can't know for sure how phenomenal the performances were, but they all certainly worked for me.

 

I get Russ's point about the cultural impact of Gladiator, but I'm inclined to discount it a little more than he did, because it was really just another cog in a long line of historical epics. After all, Gladiator had been preceded as Best Picture winner by Schindler's List, Braveheart, The English Patient, and Titanic. The years that followed gave us nominees such as Gangs of New York, The Pianist, Master and Commander, etc. Hell, The Patriot is another historical epic, and it came out within two months of Gladiator. Maybe Gladiator renewed the interest in the Greek/Roman times, but I'm not even sure I buy that since Disney's Hercules came out in 1997 and the Kevin Sorbo Hercules TV show ran from 1995-1999. Honestly, if we're looking for a patient zero that ties together 300 and Troy and Alexander with things like Gladiator and Gangs of New York and The Patriot, that patient zero would be Braveheart in my book. I feel like it really kicked off the trend of super bloody historical epics that sought to be taken seriously. (But even so, someone could rightfully point to Dances With Wolves as leading to Braveheart.) This comparison is notable in light of the fact that Mel Gibson was the first choice to play Maximus, but he felt he was too old for the part and went off to fulfill a similar revenge plot in The Patriot instead.

 

All that is to say, I don't buy that Gladiator was overwhelmingly influence as far as what movies got greenlit. Since Crouching Tiger is the better film, it gets my vote.

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The hosts said that it was hard to determine a consistent theme to Ang Lee's work, but I'd say the thing that he has always been most interested in is how social pressures and expectations keep individuals from expressing their true selves. You can see this in Brokeback Mountain, Sense & Sensibility, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman, but it's probably stated most clearly and cleanly in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

 

 

The Ice Storm too.

 

Love that this is looking like a rout - will Gladiator get completely shut out?

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The Ice Storm too.

 

Love that this is looking like a rout - will Gladiator get completely shut out?

 

I keep forgetting that's an Ang Lee movie, but yes, definitely Ice Storm too.

 

I'm also surprised at how big a blowout this is, though obviously I agree with the result.

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Speaking of accents and dialects of foreign languages, I think sometimes we (English speakers) have an advantage, and we can appreciate the movie without being tainted by an actor's faulty accent. According to my Chinese roommate, the effect is intensified for Chinese speakers, and it's much worse than the English equivalent.

 

I was showing my roommate the last couple of movies of Stephen Chow that he did in Mandarin, which despite their flaws I find incredibly funny and entertaining. While I was laughing my ass off, my roommate was not enjoying them at all. He kept making comments along the lines of: "That's a northern actor trying to speak with a southern accent, and it ruins the whole thing" etc.

 

Ultimately I'm happy that I can enjoy a movie like CTHD, or Journey to the West without having to worry about the actor's accents, but on the other I'm not sure if a fact like that must enter into my objective assessment of the film.

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I greatly enjoyed the discussion of judging actors in foreign language films, because this is something I've thought about for years. Without understanding the language, I have no idea about how the lines are being delivered, not just concerning accent or pronunciation, but cadence and enunciation as well. Whenever I watch a foreign language film, I always wonder if someone is making a really weird acting choice that I'd never pick up on, like delivering lines with what amounts to a Christopher Walken speech pattern in that language, or taking a big accent swing, or something like that. So it's really tough to know how an actor is doing in their dialogue, but Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chow Yun Fat all have such great emotional physicality in their performances that at times, even in dialogue-heavy scenes, you can know what's happening even without the subtitles. Again, without being able to analyze line delivery, I can't know for sure how phenomenal the performances were, but they all certainly worked for me.

 

On this: when I watch Crouching Tiger I can tell that Chow Yun-Fat is delivering kind of a mush-mouthed vocal performance. I don't actually know Mandarin, but I can detect a difference between him and everyone else. I don't mind it, since for this movie and this role I think his physical performance is more important, but if I were a native speaker I might have been bothered more.

 

I also saw this movie in theaters with a friend who was born in Taiwan (he had moved to the U.S. as a child, so was very Americanized, but he still knew Mandarin well enough from is time there). He said that Chow's accent was terrible, Michelle Yeoh obviously had an accent that was a bit "off" but she covered it well, Zhang Ziyi was obviously the best native speaker, and Chang Chen sounded like a typical Taiwanese teenager. He also liked the movie a lot, so obviously didn't consider this mix of accents a deal-breaker.

 

To bring it back to Gladiator, I like Joaquin Phoenix's performance a good deal, and think the choices and intentions he makes are really interesting. But that said, his accent is all over the place. It seems like he's trying to do an upper-class English accent so he fits in with the rest of the cast, but gives up half the time because he's not too good at it. It kind of fits in that his character is trying to be something he's not, but it's still jarring to me.

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I agree that Gladiator had a lot of impact on the film industry, as discussed in the podcast episode, but let's not discount the impact of Crouching Tiger. Martial-arts movie imports exploded in the U.S. after this. In the years following, I was able to go to multiplexes and see movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, along with re-releases of stuff like Legend of the Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, and Once Upon a Time in China.

 

Excellent point, and I'd also throw in that the mainstream success of Crouching Tiger probably led to Tarantino making Kill Bill (for better or worse; I'm generally not a Tarantino fan but I do really like Kill Bill Vol 1).

 

 

Hell, even putting aside Crouching Tiger and Battle Royale, I’d have been happier seeing the Oscar go to The Foul King, Memento, American Psycho or In the Mood for Love, among others, rather than Gladiator.

 

 

I hadn't thought about this, but it really was a monumental year for East Asian cinema, with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Battle Royale, In The Mood For Love, and Yi Yi all coming out in 2000 and all Canon-worthy for my money.

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Excellent point, and I'd also throw in that the mainstream success of Crouching Tiger probably led to Tarantino making Kill Bill (for better or worse; I'm generally not a Tarantino fan but I do really like Kill Bill Vol 1).

 

Oh no, this means we have Crouching Tiger to blame for Uma Thurman's car crash!

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I hadn't thought about this, but it really was a monumental year for East Asian cinema, with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Battle Royale, In The Mood For Love, and Yi Yi all coming out in 2000 and all Canon-worthy for my money.

 

Yeah, tons of good stuff coming out of Asia that year. I forgot about Yi Yi. You should check out The Foul King if you've never seen it, not Best Picture quality but damn good fun.

 

And on the accent point, like Italian movies, HK movies are so often dubbed or ADR'd that I tend not to worry too much about the vocal quality, though I'm not sure if that's as common in mainland films.

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Ang Lee's superhero film is just titled "Hulk", not "The Hulk". It doesn't even have to be a noun!

 

Dan Akroyd is a native English speaker, even if he doesn't naturally speak with a southern accent. Regardless of what the Chinese Communist Party claims, Mandarin & Cantonese are different languages.

 

I was let down by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon when I first saw it (it might have been the first martial arts movie I'd seen actually from east asia), particularly the ending where a character jumps to their death in a way young me didn't understand. But it sticks in the mind much more than Gladiator.

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Quite simply, while I do love Ridley Scott as a director (although I like Tony more), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a greater work of art, a greater narrative, and a greater piece of pop culture. Gladiator is just another American film that, as Russ and Amy pointed out, owes more to things like Titanic and Saving Private Ryan than it provides to other films. CTHD on the other hand singlehandedly revived a western mainstream interest in eastern cinema, at least for a little while.

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Initially, I was even less enthusiastic about this showdown than I was last week for "Daisy vs. Dreams." I was not a fan of GLADIATOR upon its released, and was mystified how a summer action movie with a sniff of drama hidden inside it could win numerous Oscars, (this felt much more unique back in 2000). CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON on the other hand, I was very taken with upon its initial release. So many of us had never seen anything like it. It was a martial arts movie that even our parents would go see. Films like that typically didn't get released widely to audiences across the country, and its success opened the doors for more asian cinema to find an audience in America, and perhaps that was why I cooled on the film in the years that followed. CROUCHING TIGER was a gateway film, and I feel like I saw similar films that I liked even more in the wake of its success. So imagine my surprise when upon revisiting the films this week, I liked them both far more than I remembered.

 

I've never been a huge "sword and sandal" fan in general, aside from a few classics I grew up on, like SPARTACUS and BEN HUR. But by the time GLADIATOR had come out, I thought that we had moved on from that culture and that revisiting them was a step backwards. I remember being turned off by the CGI landscapes and crowds, thought Crowe (who I was a big fan of at the time) was lazily slumming it, that Joaquin Phoenix was being weird for the sake of weird, and wasn't at all moved by the drama. Perhaps it's been the nearly two decades of prestige action epics that we've been subjected to since GLADIATOR's release, but watching it again, I was rather entertained by it. This is somewhat upsetting, that this film I was once bored by now seems great when compared to its modern counterparts; another chilling reminder of the decline of quality for the genre. But I was relieved that at least I didn't hate it. I still am a tad embarrassed that it won Best Picture, though I prefer it to the similarly plotted BRAVEHEART. Pretty sure I was all in for Soderbergh's TRAFFIC that year (and remember the best performance of that year's Academy Awards being Michael Douglas feigning enthusiasm when he announced the Best Picture winner), but perhaps I should have backed what was then one of my favorite films of that year, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

 

Before rewatching it, I couldn't remember the story of CROUCHING TIGER at all. I remembered a lot of fights in tree tops, some flying around, and that it had a couple strong female roles, but couldn't remember who they were. I honestly thought I would refresh myself with the scenes that I remember and fast forward through the plot of this, but I really got caught up in it and forgot just how taken I was with Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and especially Ziyi Zhang, who I would go on to become an even greater fan of in films like HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and HERO. Even if subsequent films in the genre would go on to impress me more, I can't dismiss the initial awe I felt when watching this film for the first time. I'm really thankful that the podcast prompted me to revisit it because I don't think I would have done so otherwise. So while I was entertained by both films just as mere viewing experiences, I'm going to give my vote to CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

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It looks like the tiger mauls the gladiator, after all.

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Russ Fischer for permanent co-host. That's the real reason why I'm here. He's brought great insights to the films so far and while note being a counterpoint to Amy, has been an excellent complimentary viewpoint.

 

I voted for CTHD too, of course. It's a better film, it's aged better, and if you skip reading Ang Lee's interviews dissing some of his own story elements, it's a warmer film too. But it's worth noting the role of Gladiator in re-invigorating Scott's career, which was barely coasting on the fumes of the success of Thelma & Louise. Scott stumbled from flop to flop after that, and I'm still not sure how he got the budget to even get it made. Between 1991's release of Thelma & the 2000 release of Gladiator, there were only three Ridley Scott films. Can you imagine such a thing now, in the year after he released two films, one of which he re-shot a great portion of? I know it's easy to shrug Scott off, if nothing else due to his prodigious output appearing at times workmanlike, but he's been a major, influential voice in cinema for way too long to get the short shrift he gets from critics.

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Between 1991's release of Thelma & the 2000 release of Gladiator, there were only three Ridley Scott films. Can you imagine such a thing now, in the year after he released two films, one of which he re-shot a great portion of? I know it's easy to shrug Scott off, if nothing else due to his prodigious output appearing at times workmanlike, but he's been a major, influential voice in cinema for way too long to get the short shrift he gets from critics.

 

Interesting point. I think Scott deserves to be called a major director on the basis of Alien, Blade Runner and The Duellists, but my instinct was to say that everything from Gladiator on was crap (Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, Alien: Covenant), But looking back, he has made some solid, good films since Gladiator - Blackhawk Down and The Martian in particular.

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Interesting point. I think Scott deserves to be called a major director on the basis of Alien, Blade Runner and The Duellists, but my instinct was to say that everything from Gladiator on was crap (Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, Alien: Covenant), But looking back, he has made some solid, good films since Gladiator - Blackhawk Down and The Martian in particular.

 

Matchstick Men wasn't bad either. The Counselor has some fans (not me).

 

And personally, I don't mind Alien: Covenant.

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I rather like both of these movies, but Crouching Tiger is far and away the winner for me. My only problem with the movie is the fact that the subplot with Lo feels like a bit of s narrative dead end. Jen's initial meeting with him doesn't really alter her life all that much; she already longs to be free from her stifling noble life and has been training with Jade Fox. When he comes to "rescue" her from her marriage, he doesn't change the situation, nor does her decision to run away later seem at all motivated by his showing up. And at the very end, he doesn't even factor in to her choice of whether or not to leap from the mountain.

 

When I mentioned this in a newsgroup conversation back when it was initially released, and someone compared it to the Rick/Ilsa story from Casablanca. I don't think that comparison carries much weight, though, since the entire plot of Casablanca hinges on their history and how it affects both of them. I dunno, what does everyone else think?

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I rather like both of these movies, but Crouching Tiger is far and away the winner for me. My only problem with the movie is the fact that the subplot with Lo feels like a bit of s narrative dead end. Jen's initial meeting with him doesn't really alter her life all that much; she already longs to be free from her stifling noble life and has been training with Jade Fox. When he comes to "rescue" her from her marriage, he doesn't change the situation, nor does her decision to run away later seem at all motivated by his showing up. And at the very end, he doesn't even factor in to her choice of whether or not to leap from the mountain.

 

When I mentioned this in a newsgroup conversation back when it was initially released, and someone compared it to the Rick/Ilsa story from Casablanca. I don't think that comparison carries much weight, though, since the entire plot of Casablanca hinges on their history and how it affects both of them. I dunno, what does everyone else think?

 

I think you don't really FEEL Jen's yearning to escape her situation unless you see the romance first-hand. Otherwise it's only been told to you. I suppose you could have replaced it with flashbacks to her history with Jade Fox, but I think a sweeping romance pulls the audience along more than a teacher-student relationship.

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I rather like both of these movies, but Crouching Tiger is far and away the winner for me. My only problem with the movie is the fact that the subplot with Lo feels like a bit of s narrative dead end. Jen's initial meeting with him doesn't really alter her life all that much; she already longs to be free from her stifling noble life and has been training with Jade Fox. When he comes to "rescue" her from her marriage, he doesn't change the situation, nor does her decision to run away later seem at all motivated by his showing up. And at the very end, he doesn't even factor in to her choice of whether or not to leap from the mountain.

 

When I mentioned this in a newsgroup conversation back when it was initially released, and someone compared it to the Rick/Ilsa story from Casablanca. I don't think that comparison carries much weight, though, since the entire plot of Casablanca hinges on their history and how it affects both of them. I dunno, what does everyone else think?

 

I rather like the de-emphasis of the romance. She's not dissatisfied and trying to break free because she's in love a desert bandit, it's much more internal. I think even without Lo, she'd end up in roughly the same place.

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Movies call for a suspension of disbelief, but I could never get past Gladiator's portrayal of Marcus Aurelius, who came to power nearly 200 years after the collapse of the Roman Republic, calling for democracy. And not just Roman-style patrician electors, but the kind that would not exist for another 1600 years, give or take. Gladiator was otherwise an enjoyable popcorn movie with nice visuals.

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