‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ Still Flies High

A restored version of the film, which has returned to theaters, amplifies the ways in which it was groundbreaking.

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By Brandon Yu

A couple of years ago, for the 20th anniversary of the wide release of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” its director, Ang Lee, reflected on how he approached what became his unlikely masterpiece. When posed with the question of whether to center his film around fight scenes or drama, “I wanted it all,” Lee told Entertainment Weekly. “Because of that, I didn’t realize I was upgrading a B-movie to A.”

Lee was, indeed, working with what, on paper — a Chinese-language adaptation of an old serialized novel in the wuxia genre — was a somewhat niche picture one wouldn’t expect to make more than a blip at the American box office. Yet the film, released in December 2000, would go on to earn $128 million in the United States (or roughly $218 million today), according to Box Office Mojo. It became what remains by far the highest-grossing non-English-language film, receiving 10 Oscar nominations and winning four.

Memory, in a way, can diminish Lee’s work, a whirlwind of revenge and romance that follows a mysterious young woman (Zhang Ziyi) who steals a storied sword from a master warrior (Chow Yun-fat). It tends to simplify the answer to how he created such a universal, sweeping epic, which has now returned to screens in a 4K restoration. What anyone who has ever watched the film will immediately recall, even viscerally feel, is of course those awe-inspiring action sequences: flight across terra-cotta roofs; the wordless sway of bamboo trees; the bodies that soared, glided, transcended.

Yet, revisiting the film more than two decades later is to see that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was not just a very good martial arts movie that an American film-going audience, most likely unfamiliar with the genre, simply ate up. It was also everything else. Lee wanted it all and made it all, taking B-movie pulp and transforming it into a tragic fable, a feminist story of repression, a heartbreaking love story and a technically groundbreaking action blockbuster.

In a sense, those fight scenes, skillfully choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, are but a metaphor in service to a parable of freedom and love. Jen (Zhang), the governor’s daughter, knows only a life dictated by others; she can see only the truest version of a self in the weightless grace of combat, unbound by all constrictions. “Whatever path you take in life, be true to yourself,” Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) tells Jen toward the end, a proclamation that proceeds the death of a love she never confessed to and presages the movie’s wistfully elliptical final moment.

The line, though simple, strikes at the heart of the film’s fable-like quality. It also might as well serve as the motto to Lee’s oeuvre. Across a daringly eclectic career, Lee has tended to tell the same story — from “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) to “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) — just across wildly different genres: the human, bone-deep desire to live freely, to love who you love, to be unencumbered by culture, family and expectation.

Still, those fight sequences! Watching these scenes — at once gritty and balletic, ferocious and majestic — years later is to witness a bold cinematic discovery anew. For better or worse, the modern-day blockbuster is theoretically more grand, the battles and clashes on the scale of the planetary, and yet, when juxtaposed with “Crouching Tiger,” they read as highly produced video game blurs. What a marvel it is to go back and see performance and personae so potently embodied amid seemingly impossible choreography. It is not even a question whether the stars did their own stunt work: The camerawork shows them too fully to ever wonder, their pathos and athleticism equally evident in each shot.

There’s a litmus test here of Hollywood’s changing ethos when considering that the film was nominated for 10 Oscars, but was completely shut out of all acting categories. The industry did not, and perhaps still does not, know how to fully see faces like these, in settings like these, speaking a language different than its own. This year’s ceremony has a rejoinder in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” another Yeoh-led epic, which scored 11 Oscar nominations including, this time around, four acting nods, including Yeoh’s first.

Watching Yeoh in both films, particularly within the context of the awards season campaign she’s currently undergoing, is to see two bookends to the paradox that is her career. “Crouching Tiger” boasted great performances — Chow’s embodiment of stately elegance, a fire shimmering underneath; Zhang as the hotheaded protégé, unable to master the unruly greatness within her; Chang Chen, whose kooky charisma as Lo offered a version of Jack Sparrow years before Johnny Depp ever did — but it was Yeoh who shined the brightest. And yet, her current “Everything Everywhere” victory lap has correctly framed her as a revered global star who only now has been allowed to fully extend her limbs.

Uniquely, reverence is the issue — why couldn’t she ever be anything more than the dignified figure she tends to cut on film? Another way to ask that is, what would have happened if her performance in “Crouching Tiger” hadn’t inadvertently cast her in this unusual mold: refined, yet limited; regal, yet rigid; a graceful action star, but one that couldn’t be harried, human.

Lee’s film hinted that she could be all of it. For all of her sturdiness, her subtle, softened gaze throughout betrays her vulnerability. In the climax, as she watches her love die in her arms, her self-containment fractures. She weeps. She tells Jen to be true to herself, something she herself never could be.

Tragedy strikes like a one-two punch here. In the next scene, Jen returns to her own lover, Lo, a new life purportedly in her grasp. She asks him about the legend of the young man who jumped from a mountain to make a wish come true. Lo makes a wish that they’d return to the desert, and Jen leaps from the mountain. In the legend, the young man flies to safety. In Lee’s parable of the governor’s daughter, we don’t know for sure. Or do we?

Even some two decades later, the gender politics of the film hold up rather well, striking a tricky balance in telling the story of women who are bound, but not shown through the terms of subjugation — who get to fly even if they’re not truly free. Their reality is often told instead in glances, silent moments when they recognize the isolation and alienation of lives beyond their own control.

By the end, Jen’s fate has changed, but she is forever stuck. The film’s enduring power is perhaps most potent in its poetic final moment: Human flight now translated into tragedy, one of a life that cannot be — a timeless tale, Lee’s trademark. After she jumps from the mountain, Jen floats across the screen, her eyes closed, at peace. She’s finally free, swallowed by the abyss.

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