With Oscar season approaching and Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ garnering the Oscar buzz usually unseen amongst foreign language films, it prompted me to look back through the years to examine which non-English films, apart from last year’s “Roma” managed to garner such Oscar buzz. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon released nineteen years ago. At the time, it was the highest-grossing overseas film in the US. It captured the attention of fans as well as the Academy. Along with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” remains the most nominated (10) and awarded foreign film (4) at the Oscars.
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Director Ang Lee’s movie is a wuxia set in the Qing dynasty. It is the story of warriors Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, and the Green Destiny. Li Mu Bai is a renowned warrior who wishes to pass on his sword- The Green Destiny. The one regret that constantly bites him is his failure to avenge the murder of his master. Eventually, the Green Destiny is stolen and the Jade Fox emerges. This leads Li Mu Bai to confront the duo of Jen and the Jade Fox to try to take back his sword.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” communicates the message interpreted from a Chinese idiom which provides the film with its title. It talks about having strength, but keeping this strength as a secret from the world. The idiom serves as a reminder to never underestimate anyone, as what we think is a crouching tiger may actually be a hidden dragon.
This Taiwanese production has a balanced pace, with the dialogues and world-building enhancing the swift and fast fight scenes.
The cast’s brilliant acting is what holds the film together and sees it not get lost in the technical brilliance. Chow Yun-fat as Li Mu Bai is a dutiful warrior who must keep his love for Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) a secret as it is the honourable thing to do, due to certain events. The interactions between these two warriors subtly explore the titular idiom. Mu Bai is the one who seems in control and is the only one who can hold his own whilst facing a warrior wielding the Green Destiny. I love his scene in the bamboo forest fight where he takes on Jen Yu.
Zhang Ziyi plays Jen Yu. She learns from the Jade Fox but eventually surpasses her master and keeps this fact hidden. Ziyi is convincing as the young and directionless student who has all the confidence in the world. She is at a loss when faced with a formidable opponent and relies on strength which shears out understanding of her character as a skilled warrior.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is shot beautifully by Peter Pau who became the second Chinese cinematographer to clinch the Oscar. This film, when seen through Pau’s lens is like a dreamy fantasy. It is packed with lore and is a martial arts film where the fights are sporadic. However, the you don’t miss them as the story is so engaging and the frames captivate you. The fights eventually take place after a while of waiting, which only elevates them in meaning. They are poetic and exquisitely choreographed works of art.
The warriors can master the elements and float in the air, run up walls and leap onto trees all whilst engaging in swordplay which had me engrossed thanks to Tan Dun’s captivating background score.
I loved the scenes featuring Jen taking on Shu Lien at the start and Li Mu Bai in the forest. The cinematography in the latter fight scene is remarkable. It is the scene that first came to my mind whilst looking back at this film and is an impressive combination of cinematography and the Wire Fu (combination of wires and kung-fu) technique.
In addition to the teacher-student relationship, we also get a look at the effects of revenge, cowardice, and sacrifice in Ang Lee’s timeless cinematic gem. A lesson that audiences can take away from here apart from the understanding of its title, is that it is the warrior who is the skilled one and not the weapon.