Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 21 Years Later

Last night at the venerable Dryden Theatre in Rochester, New York, I was honored to introduce Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of my all-time favorite films, and a classic that has withstood the test of time.

This screening was part of the Dryden’s series “In Solidarity: Celebrating Asian/Pacific American Directors.” I had five to ten minutes to talk about Ang Lee and his movie to a very engaged and excited crowd of film-lovers.

In typical fashion, I forgot to take pictures, but I’ve posted my intro here. I’d love to read your opinion of the film if you’ve seen it. If you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for? : )

Intro: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I’d like to thank Sheri Smith, the manager here at the Dryden Theatre, for inviting me to introduce tonight’s film. My name is Nick DiChario. I am the author of many fantasy and science fiction short stories and two novels, and Sheri thought that I might be rather fond of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that has its fair share of fantastical moments. She was right about that, I do love this movie, and, just like you, I’m excited to see it on the big screen 21 years after its original release.

The director, Ang Lee, is from Taiwan. He is an incredibly versatile filmmaker whose career seems to defy categories of any kind. But he was not an overnight success. He graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1975, came to the U.S. and studied theater at the University of Illinois, and received a master’s degree in Film Production from NYU, where he also worked on Spike Lee’s student film. It wasn’t until 1991, with a movie called Pushing Hands, that he finally got his first break directing his own film. This, and his other early movies, examined the relationships and conflicts of love, family, culture, and tradition.

From there he branched out into a broader range of styles and categories, including his first entirely English-speaking movie in 1995, Sense and Sensibility (classic literature), The Ice Strom in ‘97 (an American-style family drama), Ride with the Devil (a revisionist Civil War epic), a superhero movie in 2003 (his version of the Incredible Hulk) and, in 2005, a heartbreaking, neo-western romance that many of us remember as Brokeback Mountain.

Now, sandwiched in-between all these marvelous films, in the year 2000, is the gem you are about to see tonight – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – a hybrid heroic-fantasy, martial arts, action-adventure, and timeless love story, set in 19th century imperial China.

The film won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, Art Direction, Original Score, Cinematography, and a nomination for Best Picture. Remember, this was also the year of Erin Brokovich, Wonder Boys, Almost Famous, and Gladiator, four Hollywood hits with big stars, so this was no small feat for Ang Lee, and it really put him on the international map. The picture became a huge worldwide success, earning close to 214 million dollars globally, and 128 million in the U.S. alone, a record for highest grossing foreign film, and all on a budget of just 15 million dollars.

It begs the question, why did the movie appeal to people of so many different backgrounds? The answer might be written in the title itself. The phrase “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” is popular in Chinese mythology. It translates loosely into “hiding your strength, power, and passion from others.” Lee’s films, although diverse, do have this in common. He deals with humanity under the surface. He’s interested in what happens when people hide themselves and their true feelings from others. His movies tell us that no secret can stay hidden forever. Sooner or later, it will demand to be free. I think this is something that all people can relate to, regardless of custom and culture.

Some interesting tidbits to note as you’re watching tonight:

Almost all the main players were experienced actors in Chinese cinema, including Chow Yun-Fat (who plays Master Bai), Michelle Yeoh (his love interest), and Chang Chen (the bandit Dark Cloud). The lone exception was Zhang Ziyi, the young bride-to-be. She was just 19 years old and a third-year drama student in Beijing when she landed the role.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this part, but she was not Lee’s first choice. An actress named Shu Qi was originally cast. She even worked on the film for a few weeks. But then her agent pulled her from the project to do – of all things – a Pepsi commercial in Japan. Lee also wanted the famous martial arts actor Jet Li in the movie, but he too turned it down to pursue other options. Both these actors missed their chance to be immortalized in a classic – and appear right here, on the big screen, at the Dryden theater!

You are about to see a lot of visually stunning martial arts, people flying thru the air, walking on walls, scrabbling over rooftops, and performing impossible acrobatics. Lee pulled this off without the help of computerized graphics (or CGI). Instead, he used heavy wires to support the actors, that he later removed in the editing room. There is a very famous scene in which Master Bai and Jen are fighting in the treetops. The actors are performing on their own, in the trees, 60 feet in the air, supported only by wires.

You’ll also notice that the fight sequences look a lot like dance numbers. This is not by accident. In fact, the young Jen had no martial arts training whatsoever, but she was an experienced dancer. The movie was choreographed by a man named Yuen Woo-Ping, the same person who worked on the first Matrix movie just a year before in 1999. In fact, he would later go on to choreograph all the Matrix movies and the Kill Bill series for Quentin Tarantino.

If you like this film, you might (or might not) want to run home and look up the sequel. Yes, 16 years later, in 2016, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny appeared in theaters – and was universally forgotten. The director of the sequel was not Ang Lee, but rather, Yuen Woo-Ping, the same man who choreographed the first Crouching Tiger movie.

Being an author myself, I must give credit where credit is due to the original material. This film is based on a novel of the same name, the fourth book in a series written by Wang Dulu in the 1930s and ‘40s, a fact that is almost never mentioned in conversations about this movie. (A high crime, in my opinion, that I have rectified tonight.)

Finally, because I know some of you are thinking about this, the actress Shu Qi did later fire her agent for pulling her from the film.

The picture is spoken in Mandarin with English subtitles. Our projectionist this evening is the wonderful Jim Harte, running a 35mm print from the Eastman Museum film collection, and the movie will be shown on our Kinoton projectors.

I now invite you to enjoy the film that Ang Lee himself once called, “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.” 

Thank you

Read my introduction of the film After Life,
from December 12, 2019, at the Dryden Theatre.

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