20 years on, Ang Lee reflects on success of Crouching Tiger

2020-12-21 12:08:41

Director Ang Lee (left) and actress Zhang Ziyi pose backstage after accepting the best foreign film award for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the 58th Golden Globes in Hollywood in 2001. [Photo/Agencies] It's physically impossible to get to the forest fight scene that takes place above a bamboo forest in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and not let out some kind of verbal exclamation. Twenty years later, the exhilarating grace of Ang Lee's martial-arts masterwork is just as breathtaking. The way figures glide across the water. The extraordinary lightness of it. Its craft and choreography are only further evidence of a mantra uttered in the film: "A sword by itself rules nothing. It only comes alive in skilled hands." Take that scene, where Chow Yunfat and Zhang Ziyi clash in a dance across bamboo stalks. Asked what he remembers about shooting it, Lee doesn't hesitate: The sweating. Not from heat but from the stress of suspending a few of Asia's biggest movie stars high in the air, held aloft by cranes over a valley. "You use very heavy ways to imitate lightness," says Lee, speaking by phone from Taiwan during a recent trip from his home in New York. "Each actor hanging up there, you need 30 people down on the ground mimicking how the bamboo swings in the wind. I probably did about a third of what I wanted to do. The way you dream about a movie, it's very difficult to make real." Dec 8 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, an occasion being celebrated with a new limited-edition 4K UHD Blu-ray. It remains a movie unlike any other. An international coproduction filmed in China and shot in Mandarin, it still ranks, easily, as the most successful non-English language film ever in the US. The movie, which had a $17 million budget, grossed $128.1 million in North America. Arguably more than any other film, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon opened mainstream American moviegoers to not just a new genre known predominantly in Asia-the wuxia tradition-but to subtitled films in general. It set another record with 10 Academy Awards nominations, a mark since equaled by Roma and Parasite. Crouching Tiger took home four Oscars. Did Lee feel that when Bong Joon Ho's Parasite became the first non-English language best-picture winner in February that he had helped pave the way? "Yeah, I did," says Lee, laughing. "I wouldn't say it happened because of me. But as people paved the way for me, I paved the way for that movie. And that movie paved the way for future moviemakers and goers. We're a community. We're all part of a history." Crouching Tiger is poised between worlds. Its elegantly choreographed action scenes have the meter of poetry. Its conflicts between duty and freedom, master and disciple take on soulful dimensions-particularly in scenes with the film's antagonist: the rebellious Jen Yu (Zhang), a commanding figure of feminist fury and empowerment who at the time drew comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Twenty years later, she still feels like a brilliant outlier in a male-dominated genre.