7 p.m. Thursday, July 20, 2023
Humanities Quadrangle, Room L02 (320 York)
Introduction by Archer Neilson
Film Notes by Michael Kerbel

Directed by Ang Lee (2000), 120 mins
Written by Hui-ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai
Based on a book by Wang Dulu
Cinematography by Peter Pau
Produced by Columbia Pictures
Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Sihung Lung, and Cheng Pei-Pei

Ang Lee: “My dream since childhood was to make a spectacular action film in the Wuxia [martial arts superhero] genre.” Born in 1954 in Taiwan, where he lived until 1979, Lee grew up influenced by the Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong epics, such as COME DRINK WITH ME (King Hu, 1966) and ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (Chang Cheh, 1967); and by Hu’s Taiwanese films DRAGON INN (1967) and A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971). After receiving his MFA in filmmaking from NYU, Ang became celebrated for his low-key family dramas (PUSHING HANDS, 1991; THE WEDDING BANQUET, 1993; EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, 1994), but Wuxia remained a goal.

Wang Dulu’s novel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the fourth in a five-part series published in 1942-1943) appealed to Lee because, unlike many other Wuxia works, it focused on women warriors. That Lee’s immense critical and commercial success with SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995) gave him sufficient clout to realize his Wuxia dream may seem paradoxical, but for Lee the 19th century worlds of Jane Austen and Wang Dulu were connected: in both, societal rules force women to repress emotions, and we see the consequences of either continued repression or daring transgression. As the central male character Li Mu Bai states, “Crouching tigers and hidden dragons are in the underworld. But so are human feelings.” CROUCHING TIGER is a widescreen spectacle with dazzling swordsmanship, exquisite choreography, and gravity-defying stunts, but at its heart are two moving love stories.

The production involved eight, often exhausting, months of shooting in China. Lee was fortunate to have Asian action film veterans Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh (who also did amazing stunts as a “Bond girl” in 1997’s TOMORROW NEVER DIES). His team included action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who had worked extensively in Hong Kong martial arts cinema, such as DRUNKEN MASTER, starring Jackie Chan, and FIST OF LEGEND, starring Jet Li; and who had just done the Wachowskis’ THE MATRIX (1999). Cinematographer Peter Pau, another veteran of Hong Kong action films, including John Woo’s THE KILLER, worked closely with Lee on CROUCHING TIGER’s elegant compositions and meticulous color scheme (e.g., reds in the desert scenes to suggest Jen and Lo’s passion, greens to complement the sword Green Destiny.)

Lee created his sumptuous spectacle on a $17 million budget, very low by Hollywood’s standards in 2000. Among his challenges: the Gobi Desert’s persistent sandstorms (or torrential rain); Michelle Yeoh’s knee injury early in the production, causing her to be sidelined for a long time; and the fact that among the major actors only Zhang Ziyi (Jen) spoke classical mainland Mandarin. Chang Chen (Lo) spoke it with a Taiwanese accent, Chow Yun-fat (Li Mu Bai) was a native Cantonese speaker, and Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu Lien) was conversant only in Malay and English.

CROUCHING TIGER received almost universally ecstatic reviews. Richard Corliss (Time): “High art meets high spirits on the trampoline of an elaborate plot. CROUCHING TIGER is contemplative, and it kicks ass.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times): “the most exhilarating martial arts movie I have seen. It transcends its origins and becomes one of a kind. It’s glorious, unashamed escapism and surprisingly touching.” David Ansen (Newsweek): “At once elegant and sublimely silly, contemplative and gung-ho, balletic and bubble-gum, a rousing action film and an epic love story…an entertainment that has the power to sweep us magically off our feet.”

The film was an astonishing box-office success, with a U.S. gross of $128 million (the first non-English language film to gross over $100 million) and a worldwide total of $200 million. It also broke the record for non-English language film Oscar nominations with 10, including Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, ultimately winning four (Cinematography, Art Direction, Score, and Foreign Language Film). Although Lee didn’t win, he would receive Oscars for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, his most poignant portrayal of emotional repression, and for LIFE OF PI. CROUCHING TIGER was extremely influential, leading to such blockbusters as HERO (2002) and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004), both directed by Zhang Yimou and featuring Zhang Ziyi, and EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022), designed largely to show that Michelle Yeoh is still a formidable kick-ass hero.

DID YOU KNOW: (Spoiler) The illusion of characters climbing walls, jumping over rooftops, and swordfighting atop trees was created not digitally, but by the actors actually being up there, suspended from wires. The wires were then digitally removed.

Presented in Treasures from the Yale Film Archive, with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

Last modified: 
Thursday, July 20, 2023 - 2:52pm