Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Directed by
This was pretty good, huh?
Reviewed by Simon on 2022-05-11

Back when CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was released I think I resented its success a little - the fact that people who had never seen a wuxia film before thought this film had invented wirework - and especially the film journalists who tried to act like they were experts in the genre but had clearly just spent an hour or two browsing forum posts written by people that actually were.

Even still, I was happy to acknowledge that it was a fine film - as I said at the time:

There's probably no single aspect in which it is the "best ever", but such high quality across *every* aspect is very rare

I think that still holds true, although the production design is at least very close to "best ever", thanks to the high budget, and there honestly aren't many wuxia films that are this thematically rich (Ashes Of Time the obvious exception).

Although this wasn't technically Zhang Ziyi's debut it effectively was, not because it introduced her to a wider audience than THE ROAD HOME but because it is the film where she truly blossomed, revealing her potential. Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Cheng Pei-Pei all turn in career best performances, but Zhang Ziyi doesn't so much steal scenes as simply leave no room for doubt that the entire film belongs to her. It's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, she became Jen - and to some extent Jen became her.

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I'm quite sure my Mandarin wasn't good enough in 2001 to recognise that Chang Chen's character is called Xiaohu (Little Tiger) and Zhang Ziyi is Jiaolong (some sort of dragon)... Christ knows where the subtitlers got Lo and Jen from, perhaps they just decided it's not possible to do justice to the names' significance in translation, so it was best to steer clear of it.

At the time I wasn't particularly impressed with the wirework, which seemed a bit floaty and unnatural compared to Ching Siu-Tung's best work, for example, but I don't mind it now - I think that is the effect they were aiming for, and digital wire removal meant they didn't have to worry so much about hiding the wires with camera placement and edits so they could try new things.

It did feel like Yuen Wo-Ping was recycling some of his work, in particular the first fight scene contains several sequences lifted directly from Iron Monkey, but in retrospect this was probably deliberate - the film pays homage to its predecessors, and Yuen Wo-Ping's own work certainly fits that category.

The film's ending is divisive, but I'm not sure a happier or less ambiguous ending would have been better.

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I wondered what had happened to Zhang Ziyi - after this film it seemed like she was on course for superstardom, with a number of high profile roles in which she consistently excelled. I thought that apart from The Grandmaster she'd quit acting in 2006 though, because it's the only thing I've seen her in since then... IMDB tells me she's actually been quite busy though, just nothing I've seen (or heard about). Probably because she's steered clear of martial arts / period films, perhaps because she didn't want to be typecast.

I do wonder why Ang Lee has never returned to the martial arts genre - probably an instinct that he'd never be able to live up to the expectations set by his first attempt at it. I wouldn't mind seeing him try though.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was a cultural phenomenon, achieving a level of global success and recognition that few foreign language films have ever achieved (ironically it was least popular in Mandarin territories, since Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh's rote-learnt lines apparently sound very unnatural to a native speaker).

It generated a wave interest in the martial arts genre that some of us hoped would be a permanent sea change, but sadly it ebbed, at least in the West - China churns out a baffling number of wuxia films for streaming platforms these days, most of which look unlikely to have much substance.

Perhaps we have this film to thank for Celestial licensing the Shaw Brothers catalogue though, which has proven to be a real treasure trove.