It's Ang Lee's 2000 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film. On top of that it was also a massive hit, becoming the first foreign language film to earn more than 100 million in the USA and taking more than double that in total international grosses. This is surprising because, despite its illustrious director, it had had a budget of only 17 million and was, relatively speaking, a quickie. Tan Dun had only a fortnight to compose and record the incidental music, while Qi Shu was originally in the Ziyi Zhang role and even worked on the film for several weeks until her agent pulled her off it to do a Pepsi commercial in Japan.
I didn't much like it on first viewing. This rewatch clarified my opinions. It's lovely in all sorts of ways, but it's got a gaping Zizi Zhang-shaped hole.
Quick recap for those who haven't seen it, although I imagine most people have. It's a wuxia movie, which is a Chinese martial arts genre that literally means "martial hero". However it's unlike normal wuxia in not really being about fighting. Chow Yun-Fat spends the entire movie trying to give away his 400-year-old super-sword and repudiate his identity as a warrior. Men are defined by their women and/or get killed by them. They're not even very important for the plot, despite their social status. Instead women are the engine of this story, as they either fight against or choose to accept the roles that society has forced them into.
There's the wonderful Michelle Yeoh, who's Chow Yun-Fat's ally in all things. There's Zhang Ziyi, who's a girl with great power and the potential for making terrible choices. Then there's Cheng Pei-pei, who once did a terrible wrong to Chow Yun-Fat... but that too only happened because she was trapped by her gender. Pei-pei, incidentally, is an actress who helped define the wuxia genre in 1966 in Come Drink with Me and played many other swordswomen throughout the 1960s. This is the first time she's been a villain in a wuxia film, though.
It's set in China, long ago. Ziyi is an aristocrat's daughter and about to get married, which of course means that she can say goodbye to being a (semi) independent woman. This wouldn't have been so bad if she'd had any say in her choice of husband. She befriends Yeoh... then stuff happens. After that, we're into spoilers.
I'll be blunt here. Ziyi is a catastrophe. She's the most important character in an two-hour Oscar-winning Ang Lee massive international hit... and she's kind of boring. I wasn't even interested in her. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh I could have watched all day. Admittedly Ziyi's playing a shallow, fairly stupid girl who never thinks of anything but herself even in the early parts of the film when she's comparatively sympathetic, but even so she didn't have to be such a waste of space. Anti-heroes can be compelling. Ziyi though is a null. Look at the end, for instance, when a hero's life is in her hands. This should have been electrifying, yet it falls flat. Is there any tension? Do we care what Ziyi does? Nope. Any scene she's in that works will be because of her co-star. The reason her love story is effective, for instance, is Chang Chen.
What's even more infuriating is that she was a last-minute replacement for Qi Shu! That would have been awesome. I'd have climbed mountains to see Shu's take on the role, given how she blew me away in For Bad Boys Only
. (Disliked the film, but loved Shu in it.) She fired the agent who pulled her off this for Pepsi, naturally.
Everything else about the film is beautiful, though. It looks like a dream. The fight scenes are poetic, not to mention being choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, who did The Matrix. Imagine superhero-level combat abilities, e.g. flying like Superman and dart-catching, but with Chinese sword masters who at times almost seem to be underwater. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh kept me watching despite Ziyi and save the film by giving it a really good ending. If you've never heard of those two titans of Hong Kong cinema, shame on you. Both are impressive, but Yeoh in particular is doing lovely work. You can occasionally tell she's struggling with the language, though, even if you don't know Mandarin. (Apparently Chinese speakers get distracted by the different accents of all four lead actors, half of whom weren't native speakers. Chow Yun-Fat speaks Cantonese, while Yeoh is Malaysian.)
It's also worth noting Sihung Lung in the role of Sir Te. His health was deteriorating when he made this and two years later he died of liver failure, but he'd also been in all of Ang Lee's Taiwanese films (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman).
Did it deserve its Best Foreign Language Film Oscar? Did Ang Lee win partly because he'd been passed over five years earlier for Sense and Sensibility? (The Oscars do that.) That's a tough question. Even restricting our choice to the five official nominees, The Taste of Others
and Everybody Famous
are no less flawed than Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, being respectively (a) pointless and (b) annoying before redeeming themselves in the second half. Divided We Fall
is solid, nice and even gentle, which is surprising given that it's a Czech movie about Nazi occupation, but I find it hard to imagine anyone calling it the best foreign-language film of the year. Personally I'd have given the nod to Amores Perros
. Yes, watching it is like being run over by a locomotive, but there's nothing actually wrong with being heavyweight. It's also the only one that wouldn't have started looking silly if, say, Battle Royale
had got on the list.
Giving the prize to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon feels sufficiently right though that I'm happy with the Academy's choice. Confession and caveat: I'm a Ang Lee fanboy.
Curious fact: this is the second Taiwanese adaptation of the original novel, which itself was the fourth in a series. (Ang Lee chose it because of its strong female characters.) The other one came out in 1959 and was called Luo Xiao Hu and Yu Jiao Long, but it's now thought to be lost.
Looking back, the most surprising thing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is that I hadn't realised it came out of nowhere. It seemed so huge in 2000 that I've always thought of it as a blockbuster, but no. Ang Lee had gone back to Taiwan and done a cheap martial arts movie, only for it to go nuclear at the international box-office and get pelted with awards. It's the only martial arts film to have been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and it holds the all-time record for the most Oscar nominations ever taken by a foreign language film. Me, I quite liked it. Ziyi is its problem, but on the upside she gets a wet T-shirt moment. She's also superficially competent in a rich and emotionally complicated role that's one of the best female parts of the year, so it's not as if the film's actually a disaster area when she's on screen.
Those are also the real actors you're looking at during the fight scenes, not stuntmen or CGI. (Michelle Yeoh? Chow Yun-Fat? Could you consider anything else?) It's a delicate film. The fight scenes are graceful, the acting is subtle and the conversations can have undercurrents that almost reminded me of Sense and Sensibility. I think it mostly deserved its success and I admire it far more than I did on my first watching, when I ran afoul of Zhang Ziyi. I don't think it's as good as Ang Lee's Hulk, though.
"Yes, but I prefer the machete."