Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Zhang Ziyi, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh
Words – Daniel McMonagle
It took a Taiwanese-born director who had previously helmed an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and the overlooked Civil War Western Ride with the Devil, to bring wuxia to a mainstream audience at the turn of the millennium.
Ang Lee was something of an outsider in his native country, who spent most of his adult life as an immigrant in the US. It is perhaps for this reason that he was able to successfully celebrate aspects of Chinese cinema whilst appealing to a Western audience.
Set against the backdrop of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th Century, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon follows Wudang swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) on their quest to recover a sword known as the Green Destiny, which has been stolen by a mysterious, highly-skilled masked outlaw.
What ensues is a tale about love, honour, betrayal and the disavowal of tradition, told as much through Yuen Woo-Ping’s legendary fight choreography as it is through dialogue. It is during these gravity-defying fight sequences that characters are developed and true intentions are revealed through the art of combat.
Arguably the best character arc belongs to Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), whose rejection of patriarchal values and progress as a combatant in her own right brings a strong, feminist message to the plot. Likewise, the main antagonist Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) embodies female rage, rebellion and determination, which she evidently passes on to her successor.
The commercial success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon paved the way for more wuxia epics such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, both of which star Zhang Ziyi, and is now seen as a classic in the martial arts genre.
Framed by beautifully-shot widescreen vistas, sweeping music and balletic fight scenes, it is no wonder that Lee’s romantic epic has stood the test of time.
You can see a 35mm film screening of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Celluloid Saturday during the Widescreen Weekend at the National Science and Media Museum in October.