Director Ann Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) redefined what a wuxia film could and should be. Throughout the genre’s history there has been an overabundance of emphasis placed on the fight sequences, while the plot and/or character development aspects play second fiddle. Lee, with the aid of an Academy Award nominated screenplay, revolutionized this thinking and created a film which is both visually striking and intellectually engaging. It won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and was also nominated for an overall Best Picture Oscar)--something unheard of in this genre—primarily due to: an outstanding story; spectacular action sequences; and, breathtaking cinematography.
Based on Wang Dulu’s novel of the same name, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a hard story to define. At times, it is a revenge tale. Master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is determined to kill Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), the murderer of his Wudang master. But then, it is also a story about female independence and empowerment. When Jen (Zhang Ziyi) steals Li Mu Bai’s treasured sword, the Green Destiny, we learn she is an accomplished Wudan warrior who wants desperately to escape her pre-determined role as the docile wife of a man she does not even know, let alone love. But then there’s more—it is also a love story—well, actually two love stories. There is an unfulfilled peaceful love story between Li Mu Bai and his longtime friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) that runs throughout the film. And, then there is also the fiery relationship between Jen and Lo (Chang Chen) that inserts itself midway into the movie. All of these elements combine seamlessly to create an engrossing story that comes to a tragic metaphysical conclusion. There is no clear-cut understanding of the ending—each viewer will have their own interpretation. While I’m usually against this type of ending, it works here, and, I think it is what cements this as an exceptional film.
Yet, when most people who haven’t actually seen the film hear Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon they envision clips of the magnificent fight sequences. That is to be expected, as these are what are highlighted in YouTube videos and promo clips. Acclaimed fight choreographer Lee Wu-Ping used wires (and nothing else) to allow his fighters to skip across rooftops, treetops, and even water. Not since King Hu’s spectacular fight sequences in Come Drink With Me (1966) and A Touch of Zen (1969) have I seen such wuxia artistry. It is obvious that Wu-Ping was a fan of Hu’s because he pays homage to both Hu’s famous teahouse scene and his famed bamboo forest showdown. Yet, Wu-Ping brings his own particular artistic vision to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, too. For one, the swordplay is both powerful and serene at the same time. As I said above, there is a metaphysical feel to the film, and I think Wu-Ping developed his fights to accentuate this fact. There is no barbarism here. Instead, there is tranquil violence, which I think makes the action sequences appear both beautiful and reflective.
Now, if you are going to have a metaphysical film packed with eye-catching fight sequences you better have a good cinematographer. Peter Pau won an Academy Award for his spectacular cinematography. Whether he was shooting the Gobi Desert, a tree-topped forest, or the interiors of Peking, each image is full of color and texture. Working alongside Tim Yip’s Oscar-winning art direction, Pau created a visual blueprint for future wuxia cinematographers—which is kind of ironic, as he wasn’t even Lee’s first or second choice for the film. (It is obvious that Pau’s work here influenced Christopher Doyle’s work on Hero (2002) and Xiaoding Zhao’s work on House of Flying Daggers (2004).) The vast expanse shots he creates of the Gobi Desert are spatially mesmerizing, and his work in the bamboo forest is supremely stellar. While it is the story that I love most about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is Pau’s images that are forever implanted in my mind.
For a wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did pretty darn well with critics and audiences. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards (taking home four) and earned over $200 million worldwide in box office gross. It also revolutionized the wuxia genre, and raised the bar for future films. It, alongside its greatest benefactor, Hero (2002), are two of my all-time favorite action films. It proved that a movie can be a great action film and still merit artistic and philosophical significance.