"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" stars Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Lang Sihung, and Cheng Pei-pei. Released in Taiwan on July 7, 2000, followed by the United States on December 8, 2000, the film has two warriors attempting to retrieve an ancient sword.
The film was directed by Ang Lee, who is known for directing films such as "Sense and Sensibility", "Hulk", "Brokeback Mountain", "Life of Pi", and "Gemini Man". It is based on the Chinese novel by Wang Dulu. The wuxia genre has been the source of inspiration since the beginning of history regarding its fictional stories involving martial artists. Because of its popularity, the genre has expanded to many types of media, including literature, comics, television, video games, and film. Since the 1920s, movies have introduced their audiences to wuxia through action choreography and storytelling. They even made several actors from the genre, like Cheng Pei-pei, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh, into big-time stars. However, the biggest turning point of wuxia took place in 2000, when the genre gained more popularity among Western audiences through Ang Lee's award-winning action classic, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". With its captivating story and martial arts sequences, the film became a critical and commercial success, earned ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and is often cited as one of the best wuxia films ever made. It even inspired Hollywood to make their own attempts at the genre with films like "The Forbidden Kingdom" and "Kill Bill". This weekend, the movie is re-released in theaters with a 4K restoration 23 years after its original release. Seeing that I have never watched the film from start to finish, I decided to use this opportunity to experience it for the first time in a way that's meant to be seen: on the big screen. With that said, let's revisit the action classic and see if it still holds up.
The story takes place during the 19th-century Qing dynasty in China and tells the tale of two warriors. Li Mu Bai (Yun-fat) is a renowned Wudang swordsman, while his friend Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) is a warrior who heads a private security company. The two have feelings for each other but can't express them due to Shu Lien being engaged to Mu Bai's late friend, Meng Sizhao, and the two being bound by loyalty. One day, Mu Bai, choosing to retire, tasks Shu Lien to give his 400-year-old sword, the Green Destiny, to their benefactor Sir Te (Sihung) in Beijing. There, Shu Lien meets Jen Yu (Ziyi), the daughter of Governor Yu, who's in an arranged marriage. When a masked thief infiltrates the estate and steals the Green Destiny, Shu Lien, along with Mu Bai and their new allies, travel to retrieve the sword while battling the Jade Fox (Pei-pei), who's responsible for the death of Mu Bai's teacher.
I didn't get fully invested in the genre until 2018 when I saw "Kung Fu Panda" and "The Forbidden Kingdom". Afterward, I gradually appreciate the wuxia genre and even Chinese culture through the art of film. This led me to experience more movies released outside the United States, even the martial arts ones. But, of course, even with my expansive knowledge of filmmaking, I still neglected to watch "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" during my spare time. Although, I was introduced to it through its 2016 sequel from Netflix, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny". Long story short, it was an inferior follow-up to the 2000 classic despite being directed by the first film's action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping. Luckily, that didn't stop me from becoming curious about Ang Lee's wuxia masterpiece. Seven years after watching "Sword of Destiny", I finally gained the opportunity to experience "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" for myself, in an empty theater, no less. All I can say is that it was way better than the Netflix sequel.
This is mainly due to its engaging drama, packed with enough interesting characters and scenarios to balance well with its incredible action sequences. The film offers a classic "good vs. evil" storyline involving a swordsman coming out of retirement to avenge his master's death and retrieve his mighty sword. But it's also an old-fashioned and poetic depiction of love, loyalty, and forging one's destiny in a traditional society. Its storytelling and themes deliver a satisfying amount of emotion and beauty and hearken back to the old-school wuxia films of yesteryear through Ang Lee's stylish direction. Ang Lee has made various movies that allowed him to express his cinematic presentation and approach toward his characters, including "Hulk" and "Life of Pi". For "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", Lee was able to balance the complexity of the characters with a style that's as swift and elegant as their fighting skills. The result is a visually stunning and narratively compelling action drama that's only grand in its artistry and characters, not just the action set pieces.
There had been talks about the cast and their different Chinese accents when the film was first released, especially Chow and Yeoh. Despite that, they impressed their audiences well enough to become the superstars they are today, especially Yeoh. Personally, I thought their performances were great, with Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh being superb together as Mu Bai and Shu Lien, respectively. Yeoh provides a sense of delicacy and wholesomeness that reflects her character's fierce and honorable personality. At the same time, Yun-fat offers a compelling depiction of a warrior surrounded by guilt for his past and suppressed feelings toward Shu Lien. Yeoh has come a long way in her career, especially since she recently gained traction from "Everything Everywhere All at Once", and her role in "Crouching Tiger" is still a great reminder of that. Zhang Ziyi was also terrific in her role as Jen, and Cheng Pei-pei makes for a convincing antagonist as Jade Fox, a woman obsessed with learning Wudang skills.
But, of course, the true stars of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" are the technical aspects, mainly the action sequences. Nowadays, we have several movies with fight scenes relying on shaky camera maneuvers, quick cuts, or both to make the action more "exciting". But in reality, they're just painful eyesores that overshadow their action choreography. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is one of the movies that remind us of the genuine excitement of their action sequences. Choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping and shot beautifully by Peter Pau, the fight scenes between the characters are fierce, heart-pounding, and swiftly energetic. Yes, they also involve people walking or gliding in the air, which looked goofy at first but became a remarkable sight to behold back in the day. Speaking of beautifully shot, the cinematography is another highlight of the film's quality. The scope works wonders for its action, but when it comes to showcasing the excellent production design and the drama, it's nothing shy of gorgeous and majestic. It's enough to keep me distracted until the next exhilarating fight scene comes along.
Overall, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" remains a spectacular example of combining classic storytelling with great action and engaging drama as it was 23 years ago. The movie left a crucially successful mark in the careers of those involved and the genre's early days in the Western market. It's not just because of how great it was and its inspiration for the films that came after it. It also gave actors like Yeoh and Ziyi a chance to expand their careers due to the Western audience's interest in them. Without this film and the other wuxia movies like "Hero" and "Memoirs of a Geisha", they wouldn't have been where they are now in the film industry. So not only do I appreciate the film for introducing us to the genre and the actors involved, but I also respect the filmmaking techniques used to craft this stunningly thrilling martial arts masterpiece. It is worth a watch if you're a fan of the wuxia genre or even action movies.