Even after directing a pre-MCU superhero movie, adapting an "unfilmable" book, and pushing incipient digital technology to its limits, Ang Lee still considers Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon "the most difficult movie [he's] ever made."
The Oscar-winning wuxia blockbuster, which was released widely in the U.S. 20 years ago Tuesday (an anniversary marked by a new limited edition 4K Blu-ray), had a notoriously grueling production: A draining five-month shoot across China, with an international cast that struggled to master the Mandarin-language dialogue, and audacious fight choreography and stunts, with the actors hoisted into the air on wires to appear unencumbered by gravity in action scenes.
"It was really an adventure, [with] a lot of frustrations," Lee tells EW two decades later. "Actors got hurt, tired, exhausted. But at the end of the day, you watch the movie, and I think we accomplished something."
Crouching Tiger, which tells the tale of two martial arts masters (Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh), a rebellious governor's daughter (Zhang Ziyi), and a legendary sword, was Lee's attempt to "fulfill [his] childhood dream." It blended the pulpy martial arts films and novels he loved growing up with the nuanced characters and storytelling he'd become known for as a filmmaker — "Sense and Sensibility, but with kick-ass," as Lee puts it.
"I had my fantasies since childhood," the Oscar-winning director says. "There are things I like about that genre, there are things I don't like. I think, 'Oh, it should be like this. It would look better this way, that way.' So I have a lot of things in my head." The film took "everything I was dreaming of," he adds with a laugh, "and put it in one pot."
In doing so, Lee was taking on a genre with a long history and well-established conventions in Chinese culture. (Crouching Tiger pays explicit homage to such classic martial arts films as A Touch of Zen and Come Drink With Me, and is based on a wuxia novel from the 1940s.) It's another reason the film was so challenging, Lee says: his ambitious concept was extremely unusual at the time.
"I bent [the genre]. I think that's the real difficulty," Lee explains. "Like, 'You want to fight… or you want to do drama?' I wanted it all. Because of that, I didn't realize I was upgrading a B-movie to A. You're supposed to go crazy, go wild. I was honing something really restricted and refined."
Indeed, Crouching Tiger is as much a romantic, poignant drama as an action movie, dealing with themes of emotional repression (Chow's Li Mu Bai and Yeoh's Shu Lien nurse an unspoken love for each other, but never act upon it), societal roles and expectations (Zhang's Jen Yu faces an arranged marriage, but secretly practices martial arts and dreams of adventure), and the sins of the past (the villain, Jade Fox, killed Mu Bai's master because he slept with her but refused to teach her martial arts).
"Chinese martial arts are not just martial arts," notes Lee. "It's a way of life, it's philosophy, it's how humans relate to nature. I really wanted to project that into the drama and everything in the movie."
But that's not to say the movie skimps on the fight scenes. At least one of Crouching Tiger's action set pieces has become truly iconic: a sword fight between Mu Bai and Jen atop a bamboo grove, one of the "fantasies" Lee had in his head for decades. The sequence took two weeks to shoot, and was "by far the toughest thing" to accomplish, according to the director.
"The hardest thing to do is the lightness," Lee recalls. "People don't fly. You want them to be weightless. To mimic that lightness, it takes a lot of strength. When things look easy and light, that's the toughest."
Chow and Zhang spent those two weeks actually dangling among the treetops, on wires hanging from cranes. "It's very dangerous," Lee says. "You hang Chow Yun-fat up in the air over a valley of bamboo — that's pretty scary. After we let him down, after his shot was done, the crane just slides a little bit. I was like, 'Holy s---. God bless us,'" he adds with a laugh.
Lee worked with famed Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, then just coming off of The Matrix, to realize his vision for the martial arts sequences. It was not a smooth process, to say the least. Lee was unfamiliar with the techniques used for martial arts movies ("I tried to rehearse it; it turns out... they pretty much do it on the spot," he says), and wanted the action to match the dramatic heights of the rest of the film. He gave Yuen "really good actors" to work with rather than stuntmen, "and I talked about acting, which was a real bother to him," Lee recalls.
"When people fight, I treat it like a conversation, like a verbal drama," the director says. "There's a relationship, a development going on, there's conflict. So [Yuen] could not just design the most fascinating fights, which is what he does. We all had to sacrifice a lot. I had to sacrifice drama sometimes, and he had to sacrifice beautiful action for the dramatic effect."
"I didn't get to do what I wanted to do," he adds, laughing. "It turns out, I get to do a little bit of what I want to do, but mostly [Yuen] does the design, and I choose whatever fits the movie…. I would say, 'I like this, I don't like that, this doesn't fit the character.' Usually, they don't care. What looks good, they do it. So his hands were kind of tied too."
Still, Lee had tremendous respect for Yuen and his team, and remains in awe of their skill all these years later.
"I learned from those guys not only choreography, but pure cinema," he says. "What works for movies, cinematic sense, camera movement, editing, a lot. It took me two, three months to get an idea of what they do and what to look for. I learned to respect that, and I still try to bring what they do [to my films]."
Making Crouching Tiger also transformed Lee's conception of martial arts as a genre and an art form. "The martial arts film, after I got into it for months, I realized it was really musical," he recalls. "The fight is equivalent to singing and dancing numbers. There's a certain innocence to it. You put logic aside for a while and go to that childhood fantasy land."
It's that sense of wonder and innocence that Lee believes drove the movie's success. Though coolly received in Asian markets, Crouching Tiger rode a wave of positive word-of-mouth and, eventually, awards buzz (10 Oscar nods, including Best Picture, and four wins) to become an unexpected box-office smash in the West. It grossed more than $128 million in North America, and remains far and away the highest-grossing non-English-language film in the U.S.
"It was really amazing," reflects Lee. "I think it hit the West in this sweet spot because of the unfamiliarity of the genre. It hit our innocence, so to speak, because it was fresh.... In the year 2000, the world wasn't quite like today. I think the atmosphere was very welcoming, and the martial arts film was a cool thing, a hidden thing in the West. It was ready to jump out. I think I just hit the right time, the right place."
Crouching Tiger's success may have also helped pave the way for such films as Parasite to triumph at the American box office and awards ceremonies. Lee, at least, certainly thinks so: "I'd be falsely modest if I said, 'That's nothing to do with me,'" he says with a laugh. "But I think it's not something I can take credit for, because everybody helps. Somebody paved the way for me, and a lot of filmmakers paved the way up to that movie, and that movie paved the way for a lot of new filmmakers. We're a big family. We're a film community."
And that legacy only adds to the joy of seeing his childhood fantasy fulfilled, his excruciating work paid off, which still resonates strongly two decades on.
"It's one of those things that, you just feel wonderful, [like] life is worth living," Lee says of Crouching Tiger's success. "There's imagination beyond and below real life that may be more truthful. [Crouching Tiger] really unites people, not in a rational way, but on a gut level. It's fantasy but it's meaningful. It's just a beautiful thing."
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