'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is still remarkable
When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out in the year 2000, I drove to Kansas City to see it at an art house theater, having no expectation it would ever play in Wichita, where, at the time, we struggled to find any movies with subtitles, let alone one that seemed to be as niche as this.
And I’m not sure a lot of other people expected it to be more than a modest success, either—the movie was made for just $17 million, and is part of the wuxia tradition of Chinese fiction, a genre that focuses on martial arts heroes in the China of centuries past, not something too well known to general Western audiences. But what it ended up being was the only foreign language film ever to pass $100 million in the U.S., while making more than $200 million worldwide.
The movie’s playing again in theaters right now after a 4K restoration, fortunate timing in that one of its stars, Michelle Yeoh, is up for an Oscar this year. And watching it again, it’s still kind of remarkable it did what it did. Not because of the movie’s quality, which is tremendous, but because it is so solidly in that rather unfamiliar genre, with some added layers of gender politics and repressed emotion. Director Ang Lee’s work is just stunning, a love letter to this filmmaking style—we all remember the characters seeming as if they could fly, floating over rooftops and balancing on the tops of swaying trees. But Lee’s camera movements and the pace of his editing perfectly match the best examples of wuxia on film, and are so different from what we would see in his next Best Picture nominee, Brokeback Mountain.
And if you’re looking for more along these lines, I’ll point you directly to the films of King Hu, which were obvious influences on Lee’s movie. A Touch of Zen is one people often mention, for good reason, but my personal favorite is Raining in the Mountain, which has just a killer setup and ending, and some shots that made me sit up straight in my chair when I saw them. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.