There are elements of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that a Western audience is unlikely to understand. The title comes from a Chinese aphorism about hiding strength from the world. The story centers on a 400-year-old sword called Green Destiny because, as director Ang Lee explains it, the color green represents the yin, the female mystery, which is at the heart of his female-led film. (That’s also why his villain is named Jade Fox—jade being a darker color green, to represent her age, and the age of her long-curdled internal mysteries.) The Green Destiny is stolen early on by a young woman, Jen, who appears decorous and shy in her father’s home, but quickly reveals herself as arrogant, tenacious, and deeply angry—and her Chinese name, Yu Jiao Long, can be translated as “spoiled jade dragon.”
At the same time, some things about Crouching Tiger don’t sit well with Chinese audiences, either, like the fact that it’s a martial-arts movie where the first fight scene doesn’t take place until after 15 minutes of sedate dialogue and character introduction. On the film’s commentary track, Lee chuckles that he feels sorry for Chinese viewers, but says—goaded by screenwriter James Schamus—that it’s all the fault of the Western viewers, because Western movies need more time for scene-setting.
That seems like a dubious claim, especially nearly 15 years out from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s 2000 release. Western action movies are more frenetic these days, and more likely to open with action. (Think Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which practically reverses Lee’s formula by launching straight into a long battle sequence without setting any scene beyond “Terrorist, hostages, boat. Go.”) But regardless of their taste for lengthy scene-setting, Western audiences fell hard for Crouching Tiger. The $17 million movie became a $128 million hit in American theaters, back when $128 million was considered a huge payoff for a theatrical release, rather than the catering budget on a moderately sized summer superhero movie. Crouching Tiger was treated as a phenomenon—especially since it was an arthouse movie, a martial-arts movie, and a foreign-language movie, all relatively nichey cinematic offshoots at the time. And it wasn’t just a box-office success: It was a widespread critical hit, and later a serious contender at the Academy Awards. It won four Oscars (for Foreign Language Film, Art/Set Direction, Original Score, and Cinematography) and was in the running for six more. And the real news was that it earned nominations for Best Director and Best Picture—almost unheard of for a foreign-language film, let alone one so heavily freighted with fantasy elements and another country’s mythology.
That massive appeal ultimately has nothing to do with Crouching Tiger’s slow, meditative, supposedly Western-friendly setup scenes. It’s far more likely that American audiences seized on the film’s phenomenal beauty, its thrilling fight sequences, and the cast of beautiful actors playing out fantasies of love, longing, and power. Color symbolism and name transliteration aside, it’s unusally graspable for a Chinese historical fantasy epic: Everything viewers need to know about Chinese history to understand the movie’s basic story is communicated within the film in a fairy tale, unlike the complicated politics and backstory of films like John Woo’s Red Cliff or Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
It’s easy to understand Crouching Tiger, but harder to understand where it came from. The look and the story have obvious roots in the Chinese novel it adapts, and in the epic-fantasy-oriented wu xia film movement, which has competed with gritty modern-day crime dramas in a series of dominance cycles since Hong Kong action cinema began. It’s just difficult to place in terms of its participants’ careers. In so many ways, it was a rare one-off, personally and culturally: Chow Yun-Fat, who anchors the film as the placid, paternal sword master Li Mu Bai, was at the time known for his hardboiled gangster movies; he’d long resisted historical dramas, costume epics, and fantasy films. Ziyi Zhang, who plays the scene-stealing, self-taught young warrior Jen, was a child actress with only a few modern romances under her belt, and no previous martial-arts experience. Screenwriter James Schamus, Ang Lee’s regular writing and producing partner, had never scripted a martial-arts movie. (In fact, he says, the screenplay he sold his distributors on didn’t specify anything about the combat scenes, except “They fight,” and “They will be the greatest fight scenes ever written in cinema history. Period.”)
And for Lee himself, Crouching Tiger seems like a tremendous departure. Lee first broke out in a minor way with arthouse crowds with the cozy domestic dramas The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. He followed up with the Jane Austen costume-drama adaptation Sense And Sensibility, the agonzied 1970s suburban-angst drama The Ice Storm, and the Civil War-era Western drama Ride With The Devil. Apart from a penchant for striking, chilly imagery—especially in The Ice Storm—nothing about the first half of his career suggested an interest in, much less an aptitude for, something as outsized and wildly imaginative as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
But while Lee denies much of a connection between his movies—in a 2013 Cannes conversation, the interviewer kept asking variations on “What links your work?” and Lee kept answering with variations on “Nothing but diversity”—one theme does play out in them again and again: repression. His films, before and after Crouching Tiger, take radically different tacks on the subject: His debut, Pushing Hands, has an old tai chi master trying to repress his attachment to his own traditions and cultural beliefs as he adapts to life in America. The star of The Wedding Banquet is gay and hiding it from his family. The characters in Eat Drink Man Woman are all struggling with their own romances and their own relationship with the traditional Chinese cultural values they’re defying. Repression vs. free expression is an obsession in Austen’s stories, and in the sometimes-unwelcome sexual experiments of The Ice Storm, and in the painfully secret gay romance of Lee’s eventual Oscar-winner, Brokeback Mountain. Even the sea-going tiger-tamer in Lee’s most recent film, The Life Of Pi, is living a lie formed of repression, though it isn’t clear until the film ends exactly what he’s been holding back, and what effect it’s had on him.
In Crouching Tiger, the lies people live out of fear, uncertainty, or obligation form the story’s central backbone. Li Mu Bai is in love with his old companion Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), and she returns his feeling; both of them are aware of their mutual attraction, but both are too proud, shy, stubborn, or beholden to their duties to acknowledge it. Jen, the daughter of a rich man, is engaged against her will to a man she has no interest in marrying, and as the movie begins, she’s fighting her sense of duty as a good daughter and a dutiful wife. It’s a short, poorly fought battle: When Shu Lien meets her, she suspects at once that Jen’s meek, placid exterior hides something else, and when a masked ninja steals Li Mu Bai’s famous sword Green Destiny (which he had just sent into retirement as a household museum piece, in a plot point that feels a little like a comic riff on the “cop’s dead partner was one week away from retirement” cliché in Western action movies), Shu Lien can easily guess who took it.
Jen isn’t much for holding back in general. As a flashback reveals, one reason she’s willing to steal the famous sword, defy her family and fiancé, flout tradition, and run off into the wilderness alone is because of a tempestous affair she had with a bandit named Lo, a swaggering romance-novel figure who robbed her caravan. When Jen furiously chases him deep into the desert, it’s supposedly because she wants to retrieve the comb he stole from her hand, but there’s much more at work under the surface. She doesn’t attempt to control her outrage at his behavior, or her self-righteous desire to attack and punish him. She doesn’t consider whether it’s remotely safe to take on his entire bandit horde on her own, or charge after him through the sand without water or other supplies. What she may be repressing, though, is her instant attraction to someone who so flamboyantly defies her—and her hatred of her own cosseted life as a piece of décor and merchandise. She thinks she’s angry, but she seems more despairing, and awfully willing to throw that life away.
Jen’s confidence is a good deal of the fun in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The love story between Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien is a traditional tragedy, in which both lovers remain devoted to piety, duty, and the higher ideals of their martial arts, until he finally confesses his love while dying in her arms. Even Jen’s teacher, the villain Jade Fox, contains her true emotions until her death scene, when she finally feels free to confess her motivations. The love story between Jen and Lo is all fiery passion and lack of restraint. Jen’s fight scenes are a thrill because they aren’t just technical exercises in choreography and artistry: When she fights Shu Lien in the dojo, using the Green Destiny’s mysterious powers to demolish weapon after weapon and keep her advantage against the older woman, Jen is pitting raw talent and fury against skill, training, and well-controlled craft. When Jen fights Li Mu Bai in the treetops and he urges her to regain control of herself and consider her situation, it’s a battle between self-destructive urges and forethought. Jen’s battle against an entire town in a random restaurant is a wild expression of hubris and chaos—in the middle of it all, asked her name, Jen piles titles and wild boasts on herself, claiming she’s the Invincible Sword Goddess, the dragon from the desert who will casually kick down the mountain where the secrets of kung fu are housed and taught. It’s a rare moment in an Ang Lee film where someone joyously lets loose with all their fury, and revels in a brief moment of pure selfish self-expression.
But just as in Lee’s much-derided Hulk—another story by design and definition about someone constantly trying to rein in his emotions, but occasionally losing all control—once the fury is spent, any sense of joy, or escape from regret, are gone with it. Jen is heartsick over her freedom and her frenzy, which lead her to terrible places. In the end, even though she gets Lo back, even though the back-and-forth tussle over the fate of the Green Destiny ends with her wearily relinquishing control, even though Li Mu Bai saves her life at the expense of his own, she can’t enjoy the peace she’s come to. Given the possibility of leaving her family for her lover, and enjoying whatever time they have together, she instead finally finds maturity in self-denial, self-sacrifice, and ancient tradition. In the film’s ending shot, she throws herself from a mountain, in hopes that the purity of her sacrifice will please the gods, who will grant her a wish.
None of the airy, wire-guided martial-arts mayhem in Crouching Tiger was hinted at in anything Lee did before this film, or anything he’s done since. Schamus was overreaching in promising “the greatest fight scenes ever written in cinema history,” but the martial arts in this martial-arts movie are distinctive and memorable. Part of the credit goes to legendary fight coordinator Yuen Wo-Ping, who went from memorable Hong Kong fight movies (Iron Monkey, Drunken Master) to memorable American fight movies (The Matrix, Kill Bill) on the strength of innovative movement design and a serious approach rather than a prop-and-comedy-driven one. Part of the credit goes to the settings, like the gorgeous treetop battle amid waving bamboo, or the flying pursuits among rooftops, or across a pool that the combatants barely touch. Lee’s ambition here feels as outsized and uncontrolled as Jen’s, but without the self-hatred behind it.
And the ultimate credit goes to the way Lee and Schamus invested the fights with drama American audiences could understand: not just based in the movement of armies and empires, like so many wu xia historicals, but centering on a small handful of people navigating their own passion, and the yin/yang split between well-controlled calm, and satisfyingly expressed emotion. While Lee and Schamus explored a new form for this particular story—one they hadn’t worked in before, and haven’t worked in again—it’s of a piece with their other work together.
Nonetheless, Crouching Tiger still feels like a strange one-off. It’s easy to see why Lee might avoid returning to martial-arts epics: This one was reportedly agonizingly hard to make, but it was also so critically, financially, and aesthetically successful that it’s a difficult bar to live up to. And as Lee said in that Cannes interview, he’s more interested in trying new things than repeating old ones. Even so, it’s so tempting, with a movie this perfectly realized, to want the creators to go back to the same well, and produce more of the same.
But it’s just as well Lee didn’t try to copycat himself, and opted for his own forms of repression and control by exploring other genres and technological innovations instead. While Crouching Tiger raises questions—where did this swooningly romantic, fantasy-driven visual stylist suddenly come from for this movie, and where did he go afterward?—it’s also deeply satisfying, both as a stand-alone movie (though a sequel, directed by Yuen Wo-Ping, is on the horizon) and as a justification for other directors trying radically new things instead of sticking to their comfort zones. The movie ends ambiguously, with Jen smiling bravely as she falls through the clouds, leaving viewers to wonder what exactly she wished for, and whether her damaged heart is pure enough to earn the gods’ favor. Lee’s career, meanwhile, continues just as ambiguously, letting fans question where he’ll go next, and whether his next project will be equally tied to the themes he loves, and yet this surprising and enduring.
Don’t miss our companion conversation on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which Scott Tobias and Noel Murray further consider how the film fits into Lee’s filmography, talk about resistance to it at home and abroad, and acknowledge that it doesn’t fit all tastes in martial arts. And then on Thursday, David Ehrlich digs deeper into the movie’s balletic fight scenes, and why they’re staged the way they are.