Although numerous renowned directors cumulatively made more than 800 wuxia movies, none had much of an impact on the growth of kung fu films in the West until a Taiwanese film auteur named Ang Lee entered the picture. He’s the man behind the first and only motion picture to take this art form to Small Town, America.
Known for art-house movies such as Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride With the Devil (1999), Lee left behind all that was familiar to him as he ventured into the production of the high-flying and wildly outrageous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Lee said it was like “having John Wayne speaking Chinese in a Western.”
Based on part of a multivolume, several-thousand-page novel written by Wang Du-lu in the early 1930s, Crouching Tiger is a tale of defiance, duplicity, righteousness and destiny told through the interwoven lives of two women, Yu Shu (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen (Zhang Zi-yi). Along the way, they suffer the torment of undeclared love and are forced to endure the theft of Green Destiny, an ancient and powerful sword.
To Western viewers in 2001, the year the movie received wide release in the USA, the sword lore of Crouching Tiger was terra incognita. In a nutshell: Chinese legend holds that each blade has a spirit that sings after it’s tasted blood. In the movie, this was brought to life in the form of an overemphasized resonating schwing that was heard whenever a sword was drawn. This was just one of the elements Lee chose when he decided to blend Eastern physical grace and action with American performance intensity and the behavioral subtleties and nuances of European cinema.
“Since I grew up with kung fu films, I had to update them in my own fashion,” Lee said. “Martial arts films have gone away from the dramatic because you spend 80 percent of your budget and time on martial arts things. It’s almost impossible to have both drama and martial arts. Even in the martial arts scenes, it’s very difficult and could be dangerous to the actors who have to think about acting while hitting each other in a precise way.”
Michelle Yeoh was a victim of that effort to update martial arts cinema. “During the first action sequence of the film, we were working late nights — it was 3:30 a.m., the last day of after 10 days of nonstop fighting,” she said. “One second, you’re on a wire, the next you’re not. The ground was uneven, and I tore my ACL.”
With two screws holding her together, she endured three and a half weeks of pure pain disguised as rehab. Then Yeoh returned to the set. “Doing the physical aspect of the fights after the injury was the biggest challenge,” she said. “It was traumatic, but it also builds character [and] makes you learn perseverance — I wasn’t ready to pack it in.”
Crouching Tiger was also Lee’s homage to King Hu’s classic Come Drink With Me (1966), right down to the proverbial teahouse-in-the-middle-of-the-forest scene with the chopsticks being used as weapons and the pathetic old guy running the place.
Then there was the awesome fight in the treetops of old Cathay involving Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Jen. Suspended 60 feet in the air, the actors were barely hanging onto the flimsy bamboo stalks. The scene was designed to show ching gong, a skill that purportedly enables a person to walk atop reeds, jump over walls and run on water. The action was reminiscent of a scene in Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971), as well as Ching Siu-tung’s bizarrely beautiful aerial ballet in Butterfly and Sword (1993).
Come Drink With Me was the first 1960s wuxia film to have a swordswoman as a protagonist. She was entrancingly portrayed by the first queen of kung fu cinema: Cheng Pei Pei. Thus, one of the coolest and classiest things about Crouching Tiger was Lee’s casting of Cheng as Jade Fox. Doing her own fights and looking great while doing so, she proved she’s a living legend even when portraying a villain. By the way, she said she totally enjoyed being a baddie.
In 2001 Crouching Tiger was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It won four. The sad thing about the TV show in which the 2001 Oscars were presented was that during the acceptance speeches, no one thought to thank Yuen Woo-ping for his amazing fight direction, which for many moviegoers was the main reason they saw the film in the first place.
(Photos Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)