Editor’s Notes: This month marks the 15th Anniversary of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Feel free to share your memories of this film in the comments section below.
When Ang Lee, one of the finest directors working today, brought to life the popular and highly regarded Chinese wuxia-romance novel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, I doubt he had any idea the impact it would have. Based on the second novel in a five-part series (that has yet to be translated into English) by Du Lu Wang, Lee crafted the first film that incorporated viable love stories into the world of wire-work kung-fu and did it magnificently and beautifully.
The story centers on Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), a master martial artist trained at Wudang mountain in a unique fighting style that allows him to leap and glide. He carries the Green Destiny, a sword of miraculous design, light and pliable yet strong and terrible. He wants to give up his life as a fighter and asks his friend (whom he is deeply in love with) Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), head of a security company she inherited from her father, to take it to Beijing and give it to an old friend for safekeeping. Once delivered, Lien meets Jen Yu (Ziyi Zang), a young aristocrat who is set to be married. Jen befriends Lien because she is enamored with the books of fighters and their living their own lives.
It is discovered by Lien that Jen is the thief, and Li Mu Bai arrives and battles Jen for the sword. Li Mu Bai is amazed at Jen’s ability, as if she were trained where he was (except they don’t train women). She is revealed as the pupil of the woman who murdered his master, someone he’s been tracking with the intent to kill for many years.
What Lee did with this story is quite astonishing. He made his action sequences both thrilling and beautiful, incorporating wire-work in ways that had never before been seen, at least to American eyes, but more on them later. The really magnificent work he does is with the portions of the film that are not fight sequences. In many martial arts films, the story is just the stuff that gets shoved in between fights to make sure the action doesn’t get boring. Most of the time, it’s meaningless drivel that only gets us to the next fight scene.
Here, screenwriters Hui-Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai and James Schamus (and if that name seems out of place here, remember that he also wrote Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and Lust, Caution for Lee, as well as Hulk) make sure that the story is what is driving the film, not the action. Their focus on two love stories, that of Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien’s time-worn devotion to each other despite never making any formal moves to each other and juxtaposing it with Jen Yu and Luo Xiao Hu (Chen Chang)’s passionate affair is really one of distinct beauty. They artfully show how both kinds of love will make a person go to great ends for their beloved but in vastly different ways. Li Mu Bai is content to travel a long distance just to see Yu Shu Lien and dares, for what may be the first time, to touch her hand (!) while Luo comes barging into Jen’s apartment after not having seen her for some time so he can hold her and plead with her to return to the desert with him, where they fell in love after she perused him during a raid on her carriage and he stole a comb from her. These interlaced love stories are what brought the film to the heights it achieved and why it should be remembered these fifteen years later.
The action sequences are what the film was marketed on and what is remembered most about the film, and for good reason. Though the love stories keep the film compelling and enable it to transcend its genre, the action is something to behold. To witness these characters running across rooftops, leaping and gliding along from one to another is glorious. The credit for these elements not looking ridiculous has to go to Lee. He made these remarkable and unrealistic abilities seem perfectly natural because they were not remarked upon as being odd within the world we were watching. By making them commonplace and not surprising to the observers, we as an audience were able to accept them as readily as we do Superman. With that limitation taken care of, we are free to marvel at the grace and elegance of these moves as they fight leaping from one bamboo tree to another while swordfighting.
Lee, with cinematographer Peter Pau (who won an Oscar for his work here) also created a lush color palette for the film. Watching this is almost like watching a moving painting. Pau’s vibrancy in his colors and his shading during the night scenes are simply things of beauty. His broad range of colors keeps the film from having any kind of themed element, other than he was attempting to show the world for what it is. His night work uses shadows to obfuscate what it benefits the story to remain a bit vague and works to make sure we can see what we need to.
The fact that the film was so popular when it was released and remains so today is really kind of a marvel, considering that Americans are not particularly keen on films in languages other than English. Back when the film came out on VHS and DVD (yes, it’s old enough to have been released on VHS), the Blockbuster where I worked had to put a sign in the middle of the display informing customers that the film was subtitled. I still was asked first what subtitled meant and then had to confirm that they would have to read the dialogue at the bottom of the screen. Many decided against even trying, while just as many watched it and loved it (though my assistant manager did get an angry call from a woman berating us for renting them a film that was not in English because her husband couldn’t watch it. When asked why not, she yelled back ‘Because he can’t read!’). It’s a testament to the power of the story and the artistry of the action that make this film stand up so well after 15 years.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a testament to the artful action film and one that can appeal to anyone watching it. it paved the way for Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Kill Bill as well as opened the floodgate for this style of film to get released in the U.S., most notably Zhang Yimou’s great Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as well as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s most recent film The Assassin, and allowed these films to finally be taken seriously by removing the stigma placed by the cheesy 70’s grindhouse kung-fu films (which are entertaining in their own right, but not particularly good). Lee demonstrated that a fight sequence could further character and plot by having his characters talk during the fights and learn about each other, themselves and keep the story going all while having a battle. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one for the ages and deserves to continue to be discussed, which will fortunately happen due to a sequel that is set to be released in early 2016, keeping the story alive. Regardless of how good or bad the sequel is, its release will bring people back to this film and cause them to remember how wonderful it is.