Ang Lee’s extraordinary Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon applied modern filmmaking techniques to a style of cinema that dates back to the 1920s. However, for many Western audiences, it was their first experience of w xiá (traditional Chinese martial arts) cinema, and the response to Lee’s majestic yet intimate tale of warriors, princesses and thieves bound by honour and romance, was overwhelmingly positive. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars from its 10 nominations, and it became the first foreign-language film to break the US$100million mark at the US box office.
The magic of Lee’s film is not that it invigorates the genre or conforms to Western audience expectations; its integrity stems from its commitment to ancient art forms. It visualises a China of vast landscapes, imperial courts and thatched villages, inspired not only from the serialised crowd-pleasers of 80 years ago, but from an Eastern literary tradition dating back to 300BC.
The legacy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (actually a four-way co-production between Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and the US) is that it impacted film trends in myriad ways. Leading actors Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi became the biggest Asian movie stars since Bruce Lee (producers of the Bond franchise shortlisted Chow as a potential 007); and Lee’s action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping devised the film’s iconic wire/trampoline fighting style, and went on to apply similar techniques in The Matrix trilogy, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies and Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle.
Perhaps most importantly, the US$220million return on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s US$15million budget inspired studio bosses to strike up Hollywood-size deals for like-minded works. Asian artists and technicians have worked steadily for the last decade on films made possible by distribution deals secured in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s success, enjoying global exposure with such major works as House of Flying Daggers, Hero, The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower.
To this day, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains a landmark film, for its outstanding production values; lean, resonant narrative; vivid characterisations; and commercial and critical successes. Primarily, though, it is held in such high regard because it honours both the film heritage and the cultural history from which it emerged.
Photography Brett Stevens.