Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at 20: a rare action movie with heart

Ang Lee’s audacious smash hit introduced a broad English-speaking world to a new kind of thrill and one that carried with it an unusual substance

When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released 20 years ago, it was the culmination of a cultural exchange between east and west, and a glimpse into a future where America and China would only become more densely intertwined. That the film was wildly successful in one country and flopped in the other may speak to some fundamental disconnect between them, as if director Ang Lee failed at the bridge-building that could have made it appeal to everyone at once. Could this east-west hybrid be called a triumph if it was rejected by the culture that inspired it?

In a word, yes.

For many in the English-speaking world, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a mainstream introduction to a wuxia tradition that had been mostly relegated to cultists who haunted repertory circuits or picked up bulk VHS dubs of classics by King Hu, Tsui Hark and the Shaw brothers. Lee wanted to be faithful to that tradition – he insisted that his longtime screenwriter, James Schamus, stay true to the tenor of the dialogue in Hu’s films – but Crouching Tiger isn’t a simple act of mimicry or an attempt to sell an authentic version of Chinese cinema to an international audience. It’s something much more audacious, an effort on Lee’s part to infuse the genre with his own preoccupations with repressed love and culture clash. Or, as Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times called it, “Sense and Sensibility with a body count”.

After scoring early crossover hits from his native Taiwan like The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee arrived in Hollywood with an interest in multiple genres, from the period fineries of Sense and Sensibility and the 70s-set The Ice Storm to the civil war drama Ride with the Devil, which doubled as a revisionist western. Crouching Tiger should not have felt like such a huge departure from a dabbler of Lee’s talents, and it certainly shouldn’t feel like one now, when he would go on to emphasize the isolation and psychological torment of Bruce Banner in his underrated “Hulk” and champion high-frame-rate spectacle in recent films like Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk and Gemini Man.

The crucial point is that Crouching Tiger is a drama with martial arts elements rather than vice versa, and that Lee, long admired as an actor’s director, sought foremost to get multi-dimensional performances out of Hong Kong icons Chow Yun-tat and Michelle Yeoh. Where most martial arts films would immediately dive into the action, Lee and his screenwriters spend 15 minutes carefully establishing the intrigue over the fabled “Green Destiny” sword and the unrequited love between Li Mu Bai (Chow), the warrior who possesses it, and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), a longtime friend and formidable fighter in her own right. After meditating on a mountaintop, Mu Bai confesses to Shu Lien that he “came to a place of deep silence”, surrounded by a feeling not of enlightenment but of “endless sorrow”. The blood of the many slain by Green Destiny had washed too easily off the blade, and Mu Bai’s regret has hastened an early retirement, pending the safe placement of the sword with Governor Yu.

Meanwhile, the film introduces a third major character in Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the beautiful and mysterious daughter of a well-heeled family, poised to enter reluctantly into an arranged marriage. When a nimble thief swipes the sword under cover of darkness, it comes as no surprise to Shu Lien that Jen is the person responsible, but she and Mu Bai are not in a rush to condemn Jen, whose duplicity reads more like a young person’s ill-conspired rebellion. Lurking behind all this diabolical action is Jade Fox, the woman who killed Mu Bai’s master.

Though the Green Destiny is freighted with symbolic significance – the color represents the yin, the female mystery – all the business involving the legendary sword is standard-issue martial-arts plotting, giving the characters an object to chase and fight over. And chase and fight they do: working with ace fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who had worked with Yeoh and Jackie Chan and had just come off The Matrix, Lee stages the action sequences with a balletic grace that contrasts sharply with the brute force of their American counterparts. Each conflict has its own distinct visual flavor: Shu Lien and Jen springing lightly across the rooftops, Jen taking on dozens of henchmen in close combat at a multi-leveled restaurant, and hand-to-hand showdowns that involve swordplay or gravity-defying wire-fu.

Ang Lee directing Chow Yun-Fat. Photograph: Allstar/Sportsphoto/Cinetext Collection

While the 90s were full of Hollywood action films that bore an Asian influence – or were directed outright by Hong Kong ex-pats like John Woo, Ronny Yu or Tsui – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a fuller immersion in wuxia tradition than any American film had attempted, and it was a revelation for audiences who had never experienced anything quite like it. But what makes the film special is how much the action is entangled in emotion, often to the point where the two are inseparable. A large chunk of the second act is given over to an extended flashback involving Jen’s relationship with Lo (Chen Chang), also known as the desert bandit “Dark Cloud”, who ambushes her on the road, not expecting this spoiled rich traveler to put up a fight. Their courtship is a swooning movie-within-a-movie, with the two of them literally battling to a draw, exhausted to the point where their mutual instinct is to surrender to each other.

A conventional film would not have completely halted the action to fill in this crucial piece of Jen’s motivation, but it’s why Crouching Tiger is deeper than mere pastiche. Even with Yuen Woo Ping’s services, Lee couldn’t hope to top the film’s martial arts predecessors – or successors like Zhang Yimou’s dazzling one-two of Hero and The House of Flying Daggers – but the film’s romantic underpinnings, expressed in love stories both old and new, bring emotional ballast to fights that float high off the ground. It isn’t Ang Lee doing his best imitation of a wuxia film, but an attempt to get wuxia to bend towards him. He creates his own kind of tension between traditions, but it’s worth surrendering the battle.


Scott Tobias

The GuardianTramp

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