Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) has a surprisingly calm quality for a Wuxia film. It checks all the boxes of this Chinese genre of fantasy fiction: Martial artists with impeccable grace, forbidden love, betrayal, a quest for revenge and heroic outlaws.
Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), are both well respected and exceedingly skilled warriors who have long held back their affections for each other. When Li Mu Bai returns from Wudang (a foremost but orthodox martial arts sect) they find themselves together again, happier to see each other than they would like to admit. He requests Shu Lien to take his undefeated sword back to their benefactor in Peking. The sword, ‘Green Destiny’, has served him well and given him an invincible quality, but it unsettles him to be in the possession of a weapon that has claimed so many lives, and would continue to do so in his ownership. It is in Peking that the story hits its high dramatic notes after the sword is stolen by the ill-famed Jade Fox.
It is also in Peking where Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), an aristocratic heir and an unlikely, but brilliant swordswoman is first introduced. Despite her scandalous and reckless behaviour, both Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai feel drawn to her and adopt a guardian like role towards her. Mu Bai, an intelligent and highly revered swordsman is impressed by but apprehensive of her skills. Jen Yu seems to have mastered the physical aspects of the martial arts but lacks the mental discipline. He wants to mentor her, but she surprises him by rejecting his offer and instead scorns at the superiority endowed on him by his training at Wudang. The mysterious and unpredictable Jen Yu’s journey, the search for the stolen sword and the unraveling of the ‘warrior code’ amidst incisive revenge and passionate romance propel the rest of this mystical film forward.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon features a beautiful blend of aesthetics and thematics. The martial art fight sequences are not just incredibly choreographed action scenes, but reveal much about the characters themselves. The sharp and alert style of Shu Lien and the grand, overtly shifty movements of Jen Yu compliment their respective dispositions. The charged sequences of them in combat, with gravity defying movements; scaling high walls and gliding over rooftops in pursuit of each other, are mesmerising to watch. Unlike Shu Lien, who gets lengthy sequences of graceful fighting, Li Mu Bai’s sequences are quick and swift. His physical movements seem suave and effortless, as if he gauges with his mind what his opponent is thinking and defeats them cerebrally rather than physically.
Yet, with all the excitement and theatrics of the sword people of 18th century China, there is an underlying tranquility to the film. The visual motifs of clear, still, rivers, snow capped mountains covered in clouds and lush green bamboo trees have undeniable credit in giving a 'Wuxia' film its serene quality. It is also evident in the trance inducing physical movements of the more experienced characters in the film. Interestingly, despite there being stunt doubles stepping in for some scenes, the actors also trained in martial arts for this film and did a lot of the heavy lifting themselves, including the ethereal (and now legendary) fight scene atop bamboo trees between Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun-Fat.
The socio-cultural landscape of ancient China is also a crucial element in the story, embodied and recreated in great detail by the film’s exquisite art direction. From the costume design and bustling 18th century marketplaces to the remote Chinese desert landscapes, the film’s production design feels not just authentic but also symbolic, and is used to hint at the social standing of each of the characters. For instance, the revered and accomplished Li Mu Bai has literally descended from up above; from Wudang, the exclusive martial arts training sect in the mountains which doesn’t allow women. Shu lien is a respected swordswoman who runs a security company, a site of respectable business for respectable people. Jen Yu the aristocrat is surrounded by luxury, servants and guards. And the Jade Fox doesn’t seem to own, or belong to any place she can call her own. Despite being entrenched in these social and cultural hierarchies however, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could also be viewed as a highly revisionist, even feminist genre film.
The three main women in the film play the most layered characters. Their dispositions are perhaps influenced by their class. Jen Yu is strong willed and confident and has a commandeering spirit fit for the daughter of an aristocrat. The Jade Fox, has a more raw, untamed aggression, unlike the unfazed and disciplined composure of the trained Shu Lien. She is the outlaw whereas Jen Yu is the model but intimidating ‘modern woman’. But Jen Yu and the Jade Fox are also similar because they both own their power; as martial artists but also as women who challenge societal indoctrination by fighting for what they want, even if it means displeasing men of higher standing. The reason for outlawing the Jade Fox but ‘accepting’ Jen Yu is both literal and figurative. The Jade Fox’s crimes are beyond the horizon of law as compared to Jen Yu’s. She has gone where no woman has gone before (literally too, as you find out) but perhaps her actions feel more illegal because she doesn’t have Jen Yu’s political identity or social capital. She doesn’t even have the skill set of Jen Yu or Shu lien, which makes her seem all the more servile to her enemies, the audience, and perhaps even to herself. Jen Yu despite living outside of societal norms appears inspiring and to a certain extent, she is Shu Lien’s equal. The latter is clearly of superior skill but the sisterly relationship that they are able to have, and the close margin with which Shu Lien remains the superior swordswoman places the two women closer together than the Jade Fox can be with either; she could be neither friend, nor rival to either of them. Though refreshingly, the film does not openly villainize and instead uses her flaws to humanise her, a treatment applied uniformly to all the other characters too.
Ang Lee transformed the ‘martial arts’ genre altogether by bringing this depth to his film, which went on to secure 10 Academy Award nominations (the highest ever for a non-English language film up until Roma in 2018) and winning four Oscars including Best Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction and Foreign Language film. There is a balance of aesthetics, martial arts and strong writing which explores universal and interconnected themes like women’s empowerment, social hierarchies and modernity vs. tradition. Balance itself happens to be an important metaphor in the film and is the reason for its tranquil quality. There is no axiom of ‘good over evil’ to see in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For every so-called villain, a so-called hero must end. For one battle won, another must be lost. A life taken, demands a life be given. For tradition to have value, modernity must be allowed to flourish. And Vice-versa. It is in this finely performed balancing act that this classic still retains its timeless and enduring appeal.
Ang Lee is a Taiwanese filmmaker, educated in Taiwan and later in the United States, best known for his films Sense and Sensibility (1995), Ride With the Devil (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and the survival drama Life Of Pi (2012). He has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning three: Best Foreign Language Film for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Best Director for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, becoming the first minority to win the latter. He has been awarded the Order of Brilliant Star (OBS) by the Republic of China recognising his outstanding contributions to the development of the nation.