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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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Directed by: Ang Lee

Written by: Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo-jung

Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Lang Sihung, and Cheng Pei-pei

Awards: Winner of Four Academy Awards® including Best International Feature
Academy Award® nominee for Best Picture

Synopsis: Named one of the 10 best movies of the millennium by Time Magazine! Two master warriors (Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh) are faced with their greatest challenge when the treasured Green Destiny sword is stolen. A young aristocrat (Zhang Ziyi) prepares for an arranged marriage, but soon reveals her superior fighting talents and her deeply romantic past. As each warrior battles for justice, they come face to face with their worst enemy - and the inescapable, enduring power of love. Set against 19th-century China's breathtaking landscape, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is the action-packed, box office smash from acclaimed director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) featuring stunning martial arts choreography by Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix).

Review: ‘Crouching Tiger’ brings back beauty, exhilaration and a never-better Michelle Yeoh by Justin Chang, LOS ANGELES TIMES

It begins with a plaintive cello solo, followed by a crashing of drums: Serene melancholy yields to pulse-quickening excitement. Right from the start, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is built on a series of tensions that director Ang Lee is in no hurry to resolve. He eases us into a lost world — a Chinese village, sometime during the Qing dynasty — where two highly skilled fighters and longtime allies, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), are about to have a long-overdue reunion. They have some important business concerning a trip to Beijing, a deadly sword and Mu Bai’s impending retirement, but their cautious body language tells a more personal story.

And Lee, to his credit, gives them the time and space to tell it. In every soft-edged gaze and wistful smile that passes between Mu Bai and Shu Lien, we can read years of unfulfilled, unarticulated longing. “So what will you do now?” she asks. His answer — he has a grave to visit and a score to settle — feels like both an honest one and a deflection. The lack of hurry is crucial, not only to the story’s distinctive flow and rhythm but also to its meaning. For this is a movie about, among other things, the mysterious inflections and operations of time: It’s about how a furiously kinetic fight scene can make the world stand still, and how years of silent suffering can pass by in an instant.

A lot of time has passed since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” first stormed festivals, theaters and the gates of Hollywood itself in 2000. Returning to the big screen this weekend in a digital 4K restoration, the movie has lost none of its dreamy beauty or hypnotic power, and that power still builds as assuredly and methodically as ever.

If you were among those who saw the movie on its initial release, lured by reports that Lee had made the most kick-ass action picture in years, you might have felt a twinge of impatience at those first 15 minutes of dialogue-rich, action-free scene setting.

Or perhaps you were drawn in by the classical refinement of the filmmaking, the understated gravity of the performances, the realistic sense of grounding in an utterly fantastical world. Operating by his own laws of cinematic physics, Lee must first establish gravity before he can defy it.

But defy it he does. The sword falls into impetuous young hands, heralding the first of “Crouching Tiger’s” many exhilaratingly fluid transformations. We are thrust into a martial-arts movie for the ages, yes, but also a sly tragicomedy of cross-generational angst. (The intricately plotted screenplay, adapted from a 1941-42 serialized novel by Chinese author Wang Du Lu, was written by Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo-jung.)

For the rest of the story, amid soaring desert interludes and bamboo-forest intrigues, Shu Lien and Mu Bai will take turns trying to rein in Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), an endearing and exasperating rebel spirit intent on seizing the love and liberation that our two older heroes have long denied themselves.

Shu Lien and Jen’s first action sequence, brilliantly staged by the great Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Wo-ping and set to the propulsive drumbeats of Tan Dun’s lyrical score, immediately cemented “Crouching Tiger’s” place in movie legend. As observers would tell it again and again, the sight of these two warriors soaring magically over the rooftops, then engaging in a stunning display of hand-to-hand, wall-to-wall combat, was so captivating that it led audiences at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to erupt in spontaneous applause.

It was the first sign that “Crouching Tiger,” a seamless weave of art-house formalism and chopsocky kinetics, was going to be a much bigger deal Stateside than any Mandarin-language wuxia picture had any reason to expect. And it also confirmed that the Taiwanese-born Lee, coming off several acclaimed English-language dramas including “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “The Ice Storm” (1997), had pulled off another of the chameleon-like swerves that would come to define his career.

The rest was history, up to a point. “Crouching Tiger” opened to the year’s most ecstatic reviews, at least in the West. The Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote that the movie’s “blend of the magical, the mythical and the romantic fills a need in us we might not even realize we had,” and audiences certainly seemed to agree. The movie grossed more than $213 million worldwide and became the most successful non-English-language film of all time in the U.S., a title it has yet to relinquish.

By contrast, it proved a major critical and commercial disappointment in Asia, where Lee’s contribution to the well-worn wuxia annals struck many as an anemic, inauthentic, Western-pandering imitation. (More than a few also dinged Hong Kong stars Yeoh and Chow for their conspicuously imperfect Mandarin.)

If “Crouching Tiger” was largely rejected in the East, its embrace in the West was rapturous yet qualified. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won four of them (for foreign-language film, cinematography, art direction and original score). But it didn’t win for Lee’s direction or for best picture; it would be another 19 years before a non-English-language movie, the South Korean thriller “Parasite,” would finally snag the academy’s top prize.

And despite the acclaim for Yeoh, a beloved global star, and Zhang, a revelatory newcomer, “Crouching Tiger” received zero nominations for acting — an oversight likely born of a few unexamined prejudices, including the assumption that martial arts and the dramatic arts inhabit mutually exclusive realms.

The academy’s historically lousy record of honoring Asian actors has happily improved in recent years. In 2021, Steven Yeun became the first Asian American performer to receive a lead actor Oscar nomination; his movie, “Minari,” also won a supporting actress trophy for Korean actor Yuh-Jung Youn.

And this year, a record four actors of Asian descent have received nominations: Hong Chau (“The Whale”) and the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” trio of Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu and, at long last, Yeoh herself, who became the first self-identifying Asian performer to be nominated for lead actress.

The timing of the “Crouching Tiger” re-release is surely no coincidence; neither was a screening of the movie at last fall’s Telluride Film Festival, with Yeoh in attendance. The message is clear, and pretty inarguable: With “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” itself an amusingly blatant love letter to Yeoh’s stardom, academy voters have a chance to address a major past oversight.

Whatever comes of that campaign, “Crouching Tiger’s” timely return does excavate some fascinating parallels with “Everything Everywhere.” In both pictures, Yeoh plays a world-weary woman doing battle with a fiery younger one, who seems to scorn her life of devotion and sacrifice.

In “Everything Everywhere,” it’s a cosmic struggle between an Asian American mother and her daughter. In “Crouching Tiger,” Shu Lien initially regards Jen as a wayward younger sister, someone to be set on the right path with coaxing words and, if needed, machetes, spears and swords. It’s no surprise that Yeoh, with her commanding poise and regal bearing, has been cast so often as tough-love mentor figures. (She and Zhang would later play a different kind of teacher and student in 2005’s misbegotten “Memoirs of a Geisha.”)

If there’s a reason Yeoh and Zhang are so powerfully matched in “Crouching Tiger,” it’s that the tension between Shu Lien and Jen — not just as individuals but also as representatives of dueling generations and worldviews — takes organic shape through their conversations and fight scenes alike.

The revelation of character through action is a foundational cinematic principle, but rarely has it been as eloquently demonstrated as in that over-the-rooftops chase scene. Even something as simple as a closeup of Shu Lien’s foot stomping down on Jen’s mid-battle tells the story of the film in miniature: One woman wants to take flight, but the other keeps dragging her back to earth. Your sympathies may be divided initially, but after a while, you start to wish that it could end another way: that Jen could latch onto Shu Lien and take her away, allowing them to escape not as enemies but as allies.

But it isn’t meant to be, and it so rarely is in Lee’s achingly romantic work. It’s a truism of his best movies that no matter when or where they take place — in the ancient China of “Crouching Tiger,” in the 19th-century England of “Sense and Sensibility” or the ’60s Wyoming sheep country of “Brokeback Mountain” — his characters are all fluent in the same tongue, namely the language of repressed desire.

Even after having watched “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” countless times over the years, I was still ill prepared, on my most recent revisit, for the sudden rush of emotion in the movie’s final moments. Zhang’s ferocious moves and star-is-born aura burn as brightly as ever, but it is finally Yeoh’s evocation of thwarted longing that resonates the longest.

For all the extraordinary physical virtuosity of her performance — much of which she delivered, astonishingly, while recovering from an ankle injury — Yeoh for most of the movie simply invites us to watch Shu Lien thinking and feeling. You register the exquisite sadness in her eyes as she sees Mu Bai again, a sadness that she consciously puts aside as she attempts, with all the discipline and selflessness that have been instilled in her, to do what’s best for others rather than herself. But what does her life of sacrifice ultimately earn her? What has it benefited her, or anyone, to elevate her sense of duty over her longing for happiness?

The movie is haunted by that question, as well as the debate it implicitly invites between Eastern and Western traditions. And in the final moments, I think, Yeoh’s performance gives us an answer. It’s revealed in Shu Lien’s naked outpouring of emotion, as she realizes she’s finally lost something she never allowed herself to possess in the first place. Yeoh shows us a soul being laid bare, in all its desire, anguish and loss — and she makes you wonder why, for even a moment, any of it had to be hidden at all.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon