Two years ago, during the 20th anniversary of the stone–cold classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee pondered how his sweeping epic had come to be. He realized that when deciding between making an action movie or a drama, he chose both. “I wanted it all,” Lee told Entertainment Weekly. “I didn’t realize I was upgrading a B–movie to A.”
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a lot more than an A–worthy film. When released in December 2000, it earned a shocking $128 million dollars ($218 million today!). The film became the highest grossing non–English–language film in the U.S., earning ten Oscar nominations and a permanent place in the cultural zeitgeist. This is because Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is much more than just a martial arts movie: It supersedes genre conventions and soars above them, but that isn’t how we tend to remember it.
Rewatching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a reminder of how extraordinary an achievement it is. Lee and company were making what should have been a blip on the radar of some dedicated film lovers in the United States. The film is an adaptation of an old Chinese wuxia novel—not exactly box office gold. It was never certain that American audiences would fall for a wuxia film with all Asian actors and all dubbed dialogue. But Crouching Tiger transcends; it is wuxia, and everything else piled on. The story is a breathtaking swirl of romance and revenge, following a mysterious young woman who steals a famous sword from its famous warrior. Lee took, in his own words, "a B movie" and turned it into a mythic tale of forbidden love, feminist desire, and sweeping balletic action.
Perhaps no director has mastered telling stories of wrenching human desire for lives they cannot lead like Ang Lee. Across an incredible career, Lee has returned again and again to a similar story. From Sense and Sensibility (1995) to Brokeback Mountain (2005), he probes the human desire to live a life unencumbered by social expectation, by duty, even by gravity. Crouching Tiger is driven by the dreams of two women, Jen and Yu Shu Lien, whose true desires remain tantalizingly out of their control. The fight scenes, choreographed by Yuen Woo–ping, may be nothing short of masterful but are really in service of a tale of love, duty, and freedom.
The Hong Kong film industry wasn’t well known to American audiences in the '90s, so when the cast of Crouching Tiger lept into action, gliding over terracotta roofs, rosy desert plains, craggy mountains, and swaying stalks of green bamboo trees, the film was completely groundbreaking to them. It still feels like a bold new vision compared to most modern blockbusters, which are supposedly bigger and better, but look more like green screen blobs in comparison.
This is because Ang Lee did something with the wuxia genre that no one had before. Wuxia, for the uninformed, is a specific Chinese genre. Its name comes from the heroes it follows, who could naturally battle to the death in midair and run sideways along buildings. But on top of its high action, Lee also added high drama. He blended Western drama (he told Michelle Yeoh it was like Sense and Sensibility) with Eastern action. It’s also a story with slightly remarkable gender politics considering the male–dominated genre of wuxia. Crouching Tiger prioritizes the desire of women to carve out autonomy for themselves, whatever the cost. As they seek out freedom, they literally soar above the earth. The result is a story propelled to new emotional heights by its fantastical action.
This makes it even more stunning that he had a cast that could do both: death defying stunts and Shakespearean emotion. Crouching Tiger is bursting with excellent actors–particularly Michelle Yeoh’s formidable and disciplined Yu Shu Lien.
Yeoh is the titanic presence animating Crouching Tiger: just one viewing will make you wonder why Everything Everywhere All At Once, the film she just conquered awards season with, became the revelatory moment of her career. In this critic’s opinion, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is her finest and most nuanced work: the performance she should have won the Oscar for. However, the reception of Yeoh’s performance in Crouching Tiger was completely different from that of Everything Everywhere All At Once. Any press she particularly received for Crouching Tiger was more focused on her high kicks than her deeply moving work. She was seen as a technical artist: a great stunt woman, but not a great actress. Hollywood couldn’t envision her outside the dignified, stoic warrior, and has kept expecting her to play versions of Shu Lien since (um, just watch Shang–Chi … ).
In turn, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is often remembered as an incredible martial arts film, but not always as a moving drama. Again, just compare the Hollywood response to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to that of Everything Everywhere All At Once. The former was nominated for ten Oscars, but none were for the actors. Thank God that this year saw Yeoh win her first Oscar and break a 90–year absence of recognition for Asian lead actresses. Still, she deserved one all those years ago for her remarkably moving Crouching Tiger.
It's Yeoh's subtle, vulnerable glances that steal the film and reveal Shu Lien’s softness and humanity. In the climax of the film (sorry to spoil a 25–year–old classic), as the man she loves dies in her arms, all of that steeliness and dignity shatters. She cries. She tells the naive Jen to be true to her own heart, which she failed to do.
Currently in theaters with an excellent 4K restoration, this is a must–watch if you enjoy martial arts movies, romances, or just Michelle Yeoh. And if none of that can convince you, come for the viscerally beautiful story: a rarity in any action film, especially modern ones.
The stunning and enduring power of this film can be summed up by its final moments: as Jen contemplates her uncertain future, she remembers a story about a man who jumped off of a cliff to make his dreams come true. And she leaps into the air too, a moment full of possibility and of heartbreaking choice. It’s you, the audience, who gets to decide. Does she fly, or does she fall?