Oscar Vault Monday – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000 (dir. Ang Lee)

I’m sure a lot has been written about this film, so this piece is mostly going to be a bit of personal reflection, my take on the feminist aspects of the film, Ang Lee’s love of Westerns and a bit of fangirling over the cinematography and music. I first saw this movie in Klamath Falls, Oregon in February of 2001 – a few months before the Oscars. My mom and I had gone up there from my hometown for some medical tests – we were pretty sure I was dying. That first day I got a halter monitor and we were really depressed. I was so ill I couldn’t eat chow mein (at the time probably my favorite food) so we went and saw Traffic and it was the perfect film for our depressed mood. When we had to stay an extra day, we took the time to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which we were pretty sure was never going to make it to our town (surprisingly, they did get the movie after the Oscars and it was probably the first foreign language film to play at that theatre in its 80 year history). On the medical side of this story, I wound up getting rushed to Sacramento the next week for pacemaker surgery and have had one implanted ever since. On the film side of this story, I love this movie with all of my heart and no matter how many times I watch it (I once watched it with French subtitles on; true story), it makes me weep by the end. It’s a rich and beautiful film in many ways. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning four: Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography (w0n), Best Original Song, Best Original Score (won), Best Film Editing, Best Foreign Language Film (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Chocolat, Erin BrockovichTraffic and winner Gladiator. Beware: there be spoilers after the cut.


I think I actually used to have that poster up in my room when I was in high school. I can’t remember what became of it. Le sigh. So I wrote quite a bit about Ang Lee’s Oscar history when I wrote about Sense and Sensibility awhile back, which I think was post-his win for Life of Pi, so I’m not going to cover much about him. I will say, though, that other than Life of Pi, I love all of his films that I’ve seen (I’m still missing a few).


This is (so far) Peter Pau’s one and only Oscar nomination/win, but my word was it deserved. There are so many beautiful shots in this film, I remember being mesmerized by it when I first saw it in theaters.


I’m just going to throw out a few of my favorite shots with or without much explanation.


How is this even real? Guh.


The film was shot in Beijing, with location shooting in the Anhui, Hebei, Jiangsu and Xinjiang provinces of China.


Clearly, these are places I need to visit.


The first shooting they did was in the Gobi Desert, which is in the west and there is no way Lee wasn’t at least partly inspired by the westerns of John Ford for these shots.


When we first meet bandit Lo aka Dark Cloud (Chang Chen), he is introduced with this amazing pan shot that starts below a cliff, then suddenly he emerges on a horse and finally the camera rests above his entire gang. I took a screenshot in the middle of the shot to illustrate my John Ford idea. Does this or does this not look exactly like a shot of John Wayne is one of his John Ford cavalry westerns? They answer there is, it does.


If this is not an homage to Monument Valley, I don’t know what is.


I just really love this shot. If you didn’t know this was China, you would definitely think this was someone in the American southwest.


This is a John Ford trick as well, keeping the horizon away from the center of the frame. Such a gorgeous shot.


Chow Yun-Fat got top billing in this film, which I guess is because he is an international star, but as far as I am concerned the lead of this film is Zhang Ziyi as Jen. I remember when I first saw this film I thought she was so beautiful and was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. Rewatching the film just now it struck me how young she was in this film (I think she was about 19 when it was filmed). Ziyi was the only one of the actors who spoke Mandarin, which was the dialect that Lee wanted for the film (Yun-Fat is from Hong Kong and peaks Cantonese and Yeoh is from Malaysia and speaks English). Also, since I’ve got subtitles with this screencap, I’ll take this moment to point out that Lee did the translation for the subtitles himself to ensure they would be right for a Western audience. Jen is an aristocrat’s daughter who is about to be given away in marriage. She meets Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) a warrior who runs a security business. Jen looks up to her new friend, who she feels is free in a way she will never be. Both women envy each other’s freedom in a way, as Jen is young and has a chance at love that Yu Shu Lien does not (more on this later). Their bonding scenes are wonderful and full of forward-thinking feminist thought. Towards the end of the film, hey also have one hell of a fight scene.


I just had to post a shot of Jen in her red wedding gear. So gorgeous. She doesn’t want to marry – even though it’s to a wealthy, influential and honorable family – because when her father was stationed in the west she met bandit Lo and after yet another really kick ass fight, falls deeply in love with her. Much like Yu Shu Lien, Lo is bound by honor and thus doesn’t feel right taking Jen from her family and sends her back to them. On the eve of her wedding, ge comes and tries to get her to come with him once again with him to the desert where they can be happy. You can only imagine how that ends.


Jen flees, steals the Green Destiny again (I forgot to mention that earlier, but you don’t need the whole plot summarized anyways) and gets into yet another really great fight. She doesn’t even put down her teacup!


She is the Invincible Sword Goddess and she will not put up with your bullshit.


But really, she is a mixed up teenage girl torn between her family, the man she loves and a life all her own. This is a struggle we see a lot with strong women in cinema and literature and history. It’s the woman’s burden and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.


Speaking of the woman’s burden, let’s talk about Cheng Pei-Pei as the Jade  Fox, who in the past killed Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat)’s master and has secretly been training Jen for ten years in warrior ways. She offers some badass lines about the master and how he would sleep with her, but wouldn’t teach her and displays some prime (and much due) misandry towards the whole Wudang school of warriors. She’s a great character and her final showdown with Li Mu Bai, and ultimately, Jen is utterly heartbreaking.


Which brings us to Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh. They play two would-be lovers who have known each other forever, but because of honor – Yu Shu Lien was once engaged to Li Mu Bai’s blood-brother, who then died in battle – cannot do anything about their feelings for each other. Oh the repression! The scene above happens about two-thirds of the way in the film and you’re told this was the first time he even dared touch her hand!!! Kill me now. I find it interesting, given the film’s other parallels to the Western genre, that it is because of honor that they cannot be together, whereas in western tradition (stemming, I think, from the Bible) and in the Old West for sure, often if a woman was widowed she would marry her husband’s brother. There’s one Western I’m thinking of in particular where this happens but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is right now. If you think you know the film of which I’m thinking, please leave a comment. It’s going to drive me nuts.


As I said, there is an epic battle and SPOILER Li Mu Bai is struck by a poison dart. He uses his last breath the confess his love for Yu Shu Lien and if you are not bawling at this point, I don’t think you have a soul.


Jen then reunites with Lo up in the mountains. They speak of a myth that Lo told her about – if you jump of the mount and your heart is true, you’ll get a wish. Their wish is to be back in the desert together, happy forever. She leaps as he watches, floating into the mist as the film comes to a close. I am told this means they’ll be happy together forever in the desert/eternity and dammit that better be what happens.

Here is some of Tan Dun’s Oscar-winning score, as played by Yo-Yo Ma. Now go cry all the tears.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on June 24, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Crying here. I didn’t realize you were going to talk about how we saw this for the first time. I almost said something yesterday as it was such an important moment in our lives. I am crying here both for how frightened we were and for the beauty of this amazing movie. 🙂

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