Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has not been truly matched or even successfully mimicked in the 20 years since its release.
I still remember asking my parents to make the two-hour drive down to Pittsburgh to take me to see Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while it was still in limited release. As a 15-year-old, I missed a lot of the nuance of the storytelling and didn’t have a full appreciation for the skill of the filmmaking, but I remember being stunned by what was on the screen. And I wasn’t the only one. It became the highest grossing foreign-language film in the United States and was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning four.
Though visually stunning, the film had a timeless quality when it was first released, and as a result it holds up very well when viewed today. While set in the 18th century, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon seems to exist in completely different world than our own. A world of magic swords, floating warriors, forbidden love and mystical monasteries. This element is, of course, a result of hard work rather than luck or trickery. Peter Pau’s cinematography captures the beauty of both of Chinese landscape and the graceful, impossible movement of the characters. And Timmy Yip’s costume design and art direction strikes a fan balance between historical and fantastical, grounding the film in reality while allowing it to surprise us with magic.
The plot, with its multiple love stories, betrayals, disguises and surprises, is just as perennial as the film’s technical elements. Many of the plot points are typical of the wuxia genre, which blends fantasy, martial arts and medieval culture. Though based on Wang Dulu’s intricate, bombastic Crane-Iron series, Lee resists the call of melodrama, focusing instead on the subtlety of the two key romances. The primary love story is the tale of two warriors, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat), both legendary fighters who have never pursued their feelings for one another because Shu Lien was previously engaged to Li Mu Bai’s best friend, Meng Sizhao, who died. The secondary love story is between the spoiled daughter of the governor, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi, the film’s breakout star) and a desert bandit named Lo (Chang Chen). Each of these romances is given the slow-burn treatment, and neither pays off in the way that you would expect it to.
When viewed today, the film seems like an almost impossible convergence of talent, from Lee’s direction to Yuen Woo-ping’s fight choreography to Tan Dun’s score (with those Yo-Yo Ma’s cello solos!) to the acting of the four leads. All of these, combined with the aforementioned work by Pau and Yip, represent cinematic craft at its finest. Crouching Tiger drew its talent from various corners of Chinese influence. Take the four stars, for example: Chow Yun-fat is from Hong Kong, Michelle Yeoh is from Malaysia, Zhang Ziyi is from Beijing, and Chang Chen is from Taiwan. All have Chinese heritage, but only Zhang is from mainland China. By casting key roles (as well as folks on the production team) from representatives of the global Chinese diaspora, Lee’s film ends up serving as an act of unity for a nation that is often misunderstood historically and culturally, and one that is at sometimes at odds with other nations in its direct influence.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is important film outside of China as well, bridging the cinematic gap between China and the United States in a way that had never been done before. The film is responsible for the popular introduction of the wuxia genre to the United States, and also laid groundwork for a number of studios and filmmakers to think about making films that appealed to both markets. That it did so as an elegant, feminist prestige film only speaks to Lee’s vision, which is the rare example of a truly four-quadrant film. It has elements that appeal to every kind of cinema fan, provided they are willing to “endure” subtitles, a barrier that the success of Parasite has brought back to the fore.
Even though a number of copycats and a far-inferior sequel followed, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has not been truly matched or even successfully mimicked in the 20 years since its release. In terms of Chinese-language films that have successfully found a following in the United States, Zhang Yimou’s colorful epics have had the visually stunning action and Wong Kar-wai’s have had meditative, heartbreaking romance, but no one has successfully combined both. It’s a one of a kind film and one worthy of another look.