***This is the fifth entry in Rob Argent’s series introducing us to the Kung Fu films that have helped to define the genera. Readers looking to get up to speed on his in his earlier essays can find them by clicking on the following links: first, second, third and fourth. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was widely admired by both fans and critics. It introduced a new generation of audience members to the joys of Wuxai storytelling, and it helped to put the Kung Fu movie genre back on the map. For that reason alone it deserves its spot as one of the most iconic Chinese martial arts films of its decade. Enjoy***
Since the late nineteen twenties there has been an abundance of martial art related movies, ranging from outlandish fantasy (known in China as wuxia), through gritty hard hitting drama to high concept action pieces. The majority of these have originated from either mainland China or Hong Kong, with the former generally focusing on historically orientated titles and the latter producing more modern, explosive fare. In this series I have been looking at a number of iconic Kung Fu films that, for one reason or another, had a significant effect on the way we watch martial arts on the screen. Some of them are familiar and have created certain expectations about the genre, while others are lesser known titles that have provided a different take on how to portray martial artists and their practices. Nevertheless, the Chinese martial arts are the centerpiece of each production. For the final article of this series I will address Ang Lee’s seminal movie from 2000, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Revered throughout Qing dynasty China for his heroic exploits, martial arts master Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun Fat) prepares to retire from a life of adventure to pursue Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a fellow warrior, who have both denied their feelings for each other due to their sense of honor and duty. However, the arrival of a young and dangerous martial prodigy – and the return of an old enemy with unfinished business – conspire to draw the two back into the world of Jiang Hu. An investigation into a political scandal will lead to revelations, the chance for revenge and the opportunity for two lovers to finally be together.
Bringing Kung Fu Back to the Masses
Writing about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a challenge in and of itself – so much has already been said about both the film and how it managed to break new ground with western audiences while still telling a traditional wuxia tale. Hong Kong kung fu movies became cool to a new generation, and even critics who would normally not acknowledge the genre came to appreciate it. By taking a very character focused script and applying a liberal dose of action and fantastical elements, the result is one of “magic realism” rather than a standard fight film.
At the outset it seemed almost impossible that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” could have become as successful as it did. This project was built on the sub-genre of the plot driven combat movie that found its feet with King Hu’s work such as “A Touch Of Zen” and later by Wong Kar Wai’s “Ashes Of Time.” Those movies had always been a smaller, less recognized, part of the Hong Kong film industry. Yet on closer inspection, it is evident that “Couching Tiger” gained its edge through the inclusion of a number of unusual ingredients.
While it is now held up as a shining example of a successful “Chinese blockbuster”, the production team actually started by pulled together a worldwide ensemble to create a vision of China where myths, legends and lost traditions collide. Director Ang Lee has stated that he attempted to emulate the old kung fu movies that he watched as a youth. Yet he came at the task very differently due to his technical background and years of training as a filmmaker in America.
An interesting counterpoint to this film is his directorial debut, 1992’s “Pushing Hands.” In that, the focus is on a Chinese Taiji master who struggles to adapt to his new surroundings in New York. Conversely, Lee’s own career seems to be the opposite, embracing Western methods entirely and trying to appropriate Chinese elements.
Lead actor Chow Yun Fat, meanwhile, is arguably one of the world’s biggest movie stars, and made his martial arts movie debut here. Recognized as an action hero in “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled,” he had never before took on a role that demanded his knowledge of kung fu.
On the other hand supporting actress Michelle Yeoh had cut her teeth in many a fight film prior to this one. “Wing Chun” and “Tai Chi Master” are both worth particular mention. To Western audiences she would have been best remembered (at the time) for the James Bond title “Tomorrow Never Dies.” A Malaysian stunt-woman, actress and skilled combatant, she carries many of the film’s stronger emotional plot points.
These are only the main players, and I could go on about the myriad of supporting characters that help expand the story. Actress Zhang Ziyi – here playing Manchurian governor’s daughter Jen Yu – made her name in this piece, receiving critical acclaim for her role and cementing her status as the go to “Chinese star” for any director looking to cast someone to play high kicking, passionate, tragic characters. Her initial admiration of the martial warriors quickly sours when she sees how their lives are bound to their duties, a fact that resonates far too deeply with her own situation, being betrothed to a successful man who would expect her to serve him. Even without her fiance being on screen, this person and the world he represents looms large over Jen Yu’s actions, and eventually she comes to reject the life that Shu Lien leads as well.
Raising the Bar
The attention to detail in the film is obvious. Painstaking detail was emphasized in every aspect of the project from weaponry, costumes and even hairstyles. Notice for instance the male characters’ half shaven queue style, which was worn at the time by most individuals. The display of culture is written large, almost celebrating the reign of the last Chinese imperial dynasty. Extras hustle to and fro in vibrant cities, secluded forests and majestic houses. Released a year after blockbusters such as “The Matrix” and “The Phantom Menace,” “Crouching Tiger” still managed to show a fully realized, believable setting that could create a feeling of exotic allure for a time and place that is lost to time. Ang Lee’s vision of China manages to be both closer to our own world yet as alien as the planets that the Star Wars series visits.
A significant part of the film focuses on the “warrior’s way of life.” This is shown in both a positive and negative light. Whereas other, more physical, action oriented titles simply praise a martial artist’s prowess at combat, this film demonstrates how a lifetime of training and dedication can hold one back or make repressed desires grow stronger. A brief aside is made about the rough living and rigorous demands of such an existence, but so much more is said by the sheer number of pained expressions and things left unsaid as characters are prevented from expressing themselves due to their devotion to their duty and social status. Li Mu Bai is almost in agony when abandoning his sword, the Green Destiny, while Shu Lien’s longing to live with him is outweighed by her family business and her own loyalty to her deceased fiance, which is both self imposed and encouraged by tradition at the time.
Of course, this would make for a fairly slow moving affair without any immediate threats. This is where Zhang Ziyi’s character Jen steps (or more appropriately, glides) in. A tempestuous, passionate teenage girl faced with a rigid and oppressive lifestyle, Jen’s resistance to these expectations are in turns both rebellious and revolutionary.
Her natural skill in kung fu has to be hidden from her parents’ sight, as even this small transgression could bring shame on her loved ones. Escaping from her predetermined future as simply “the governor’s daughter”, she is able to illustrate what Shu Lien may have become had she gone against what society demanded of her. However, Shu Lien’s years of martial discipline and loyalty had ingrained a strong sense of tradition; by being both a perfect example of a martial artist of the time, she is also a model of someone who has conformed to their role to the point where their own feelings have been pushed aside. Seeing her and Li Mu Bai haunted by their past decisions, Jen’s own actions suddenly become more sympathetic to the viewer.
Watching the protagonists deal with political intrigue, vengeance fueled antagonists and their own conflicting thoughts makes for an action movie that isn’t primarily about action. Jen may represent the kind of youthful, aspirational optimism that is seen in big budget Hollywood fare, but in Ang Lee’s world that attitude doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.
Despite the flying and fantastical fighting abilities that are always on display, matters of the heart are dealt with in a much more realistic way here. We get to see how restraint and respect take a toll, but also how they can be the only rational choice. Anyone who has seen a previous Ang Lee film will recognize this as something of a calling card of his, whereby reckless and ignorant actions are often punished in favor of self-control. No matter how great your martial genius, it appears to be impossible to escape this hegemonic neo-Confucian system of values. This is the engine that powers both the characters frustrations and ultimately the strength of the film.
Special mention should go to cinematographer Peter Pau for the way that this film captures the audience’s imagination. He deserves at least as much credit as action director Yuen Woo Ping who is arguably better recognized for his contribution to the movie. As impressive as the camerawork and physical ability of the actors can be, many productions are too quick to cut up fight scenes into short, sharp shots that have a tight focus on the stars’ faces, which often detracts from the spectacle of the combat. Pau lets his shots linger, even during the most frantic battles, which makes even the more hectic moments seem like gorgeous works of art that could be framed and displayed.
Upon release, critics favoring more artistic fare to action moves raved about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” As Ang Lee set about writing the story, martial cinema had split into two primary styles – that of lighthearted romps, the likes of which pioneered by Jackie Chan, and the harder, more tragic tales that directors like Tsui Hark. “Crouching Tiger” broke the mold, choosing to emphasize aesthetic beauty and emotion over everything else. Maybe this is why in China it was not as well received in comparison to the west or other kung fu titles. However, after a breath taking run at the worldwide box office, it is now seen as something of a national treasure.
Paving the Way
Yes, this movie may not be to everyone’s taste; anyone expecting a hard hitting, old school show of back to back fighting will be severely disappointed. Worse, there are countless imitators that have threatened to turn kung fu movies into a slightly more masculine version of ballet. But this is a kung fu title that delivers not just as a genre piece, but as a terrifically made film in general. Fights are representations of the warriors’ thoughts and beliefs, and there are no arbitrary scraps for the sake of getting more combat shoe horned in. Hollywood – and Hong Kong, it has to be said – has pilfered many of the superficial trappings such as graceful wire work and achingly melancholic soundtracks with slow, tasteful camerawork. But ultimately, Ang Lee’s humble love letter to the martial arts movies that he used to watch as a child stands above them.
This concludes my series on the essential kung fu titles that have helped to make the genre what it is today. There are countless more movies I could recommend, from old black and white titles that hint at what is to come, through numerous revenge driven action films that dominated the sixties and seventies, to the modern day mix of developed plotting and computer enhanced martial bouts. Pick any kung fu cinema title from your local second hand shop, or your online streaming sites, and there’s bound to be something in there that has been influenced by – or perhaps shamelessly ripped off – the five films that I’ve written about in this series. Play any video game with a strong fighting aspect to it and you may recognize something about the way the characters move, their design, or the plot that mirrors old fashioned, almost cliched, stories that Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and their likes were in years ago. Any kind of storytelling will always have snatches of more deeply buried tales, and these films are the five stories that I will always come back to.
About the Author: Rob Argent is a freelance writer with a degree in English language and literature. He has previously trained in Karate, Kickboxing and Muay Thai and he is currently studying Taiji Quan. He lives in Birmingham, England with his two pet fish.