Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A masterpiece returns to theaters

It begins with a plaintive cello solo, followed by a pounding drum: cheerful melancholy gives way to pulse-pounding excitement. From the start, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon builds on a series of tensions that director Ang Lee is in no hurry to resolve. He transports us to a lost world – a Chinese village, sometime during the Qing Dynasty – where two highly skilled fighters and long-time allies, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) are about to become one to have a long overdue reunion. They have important business involving a trip to Beijing, a deadly sword and Mu Bai’s impending retirement, but their reserved body language tells a more personal story.

And Lee, to his credit, gives them the time and space to tell it. In every soft look and longing smile that goes back and forth between Mu Bai and Shu Lien, we can read years of unfulfilled, unspoken longing. “And what are you doing now?” She asks. His response – he has a grave to visit and a score to settle – feels both honest and distracted. The lack of rush is crucial, not only to the story’s distinctive flow and rhythm, but also to its importance. Because this is, among other things, a film about the mysterious turns and operations of time: it’s about how a furiously kinetic battle scene can bring the world to a standstill and how years of silent suffering can fly by in the blink of an eye.

It’s been a long time since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon first stormed festivals, theaters and the gates of Hollywood itself in 2000. When the film returned to the big screen this weekend in a 4K digital restoration, the film has lost none of its dreamy beauty or hypnotic power, and that power still builds as confidently and methodically as ever.

If you were one of those who saw the film when it was first released, lured by reports that Lee had made the best action film in years, you might have felt a tinge of impatience in those first 15 minutes of dialog-packed action-free scene setting.

Or maybe you were drawn to the classic sophistication of filmmaking, the understated seriousness of the performances, the realistic sense of being grounded in an absolutely fantastical world. Working by his own laws of film physics, Lee must first establish gravity before he can defy it.

Two women in Chinese dress in the film "Crouching tiger, hidden dragon."

Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

(Sony Pictures Classics)

But defy him, he does it. The sword falls into impetuous young hands, heralding the first of many excitingly flowing transformations of Crouching Tiger. We’re transported into a martial arts movie for the ages, yes, but also into a devious tragicomedy of intergenerational fear. (The lavishly plotted screenplay, adapted from a 1941-42 novel by Chinese author Wang Du Lu, was written by Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo-jung.)

For the remainder of the story, between soaring desert interludes and bamboo forest intrigue, Shu Lien and Mu Bai will take turns trying to rein in Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a loveable and resentful rebel spirit bent on grasping love and liberation , which is Our two older heroes have long refused.

Brilliantly staged by the great Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Wo-ping and accompanied by the driving drumbeats of Tan Dun’s lyrical score, Shu Lien and Jens’ first action sequence instantly cemented Crouching Tiger’s place in the film legend. As observers would keep saying, the sight of these two warriors magically soaring above the rooftops and then engaging in a breathtaking display of hand-to-hand combat and wall-to-wall combat was so captivating that it captivated the audience The 2000 Cannes Film Festival erupts in spontaneous applause.

It was the first indication that Crouching Tiger, a seamless weave of art-house formalism and Chopsock kinetics, would become a much bigger business in the US than any Mandarin language wuxia picture had every reason to expect. And it also confirmed that the Taiwan-born Lee, who emerged from several acclaimed English-language dramas including ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (1995) and ‘The Ice Storm’ (1997), had pulled off another of the chameleon-like swerves that it would come to define his career.

The rest was history up to a point. “Crouching Tiger” opened the most euphoric reviews of the year, at least in the west. Kenneth Turan of the Times wrote that the film’s “blend of the magical, mythical and romantic fills a need within us that we may not even know we have,” and audiences seemed to agree. The film grossed more than $213 million worldwide and became the highest-grossing non-English language film of all time in the US, a title it has yet to concede.

In contrast, it proved a major critical and commercial disappointment in Asia, where Lee’s contribution became well-known wuxia Annals appeared to many as an anemic, inauthentic, Western-flattering imitation. (Quite a few have also criticized Hong Kong stars Yeoh and Chow for their strikingly imperfect Mandarin.)

A man and a woman watch the film "Crouching tiger, hidden dragon."

Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

(Sony Pictures Classics)

While “Crouching Tiger” was largely dismissed in the East, its embrace in the West was enthusiastic but limited. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won four of them (for foreign language film, cinematography, artistic direction and original score). But it didn’t win for Lee’s Directing or Best Picture; it would be another 19 years before a non-English language film, the South Korean thriller Parasite, would finally take home the Academy’s top prize.

And despite the credit for Yeoh, a beloved global star, and Zhang, a revealing newcomer, “Crouching Tiger” received zero nominations for acting — an oversight that likely stems from a few unexamined biases, including the assumption that martial arts and the dramatic arts are inhabited in mutually exclusive realms.

The academy’s historically lousy record of honoring Asian actors has happily improved in recent years. In 2021, Steven Yeun became the first Asian-American actor to receive an Oscar nomination for Lead Actor; his film “Minari” also won a supporting actress trophy for Korean actor Yuh-Jung Youn.

And this year, a record four Asian actors were nominated: Hong Chau (“The Whale”) and the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” trio of Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and finally Yeoh himself, who became the first self-identifying Asian performer nominated for Lead Actress.

The timing of Crouching Tiger’s re-release is certainly no coincidence; nor did a screening of the film at last fall’s Telluride Film Festival, which Yeoh attended. The message is clear and fairly undeniable: With Everything Everywhere All at Once, itself an amusingly overt love letter to Yeoh’s fame, Academy voters have a chance to address a major lapse of the past.

Whatever the outcome of this campaign, the timely return of Crouching Tiger brings to light some intriguing parallels with Everything Everywhere. In both pictures, Yeoh plays a world-weary woman struggling with a fiery younger woman who seems to spurn her life of devotion and sacrifice.

Everything Everywhere is about a cosmic struggle between an Asian-American mother and her daughter. In “Crouching Tiger,” Shu Lien initially views Jen as a wayward younger sister who must be set on the right path with coaxing words and, if necessary, machetes, spears, and swords. It’s no surprise that Yeoh, with her poised poise and majestic poise, has been cast as a tough love mentor so many times. (She and Zhang later played a different kind of teacher and student in 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.”)

A rider on a horse in the film "Crouching tiger, hidden dragon."

Chang Chen in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

(Sony Pictures Classics)

If there’s a reason Yeoh and Zhang are such a strong fit in Crouching Tiger, it’s because the tension between Shu Lien and Jen—not just as individuals, but also as representatives of dueling generations and worldviews—through their conversations and Battle scenes takes organic form like.

Character revelation through action is a fundamental cinematic principle, but seldom has it been so eloquently demonstrated as in this rooftop chase. Even something as simple as a close-up of Shu Lien’s foot stomping on Jen’s mid-fight tells the film’s story in miniature: one woman wants to fly, but the other keeps dragging her back to earth. Your sympathies may be divided at first, but after a while you begin to wish it could end differently: that Jen could latch on to Shu Lien and take her with him, so they could escape as allies rather than enemies.

But it’s not meant to be, and it’s so rare in Lee’s achingly romantic work. It’s a truism of his best films that no matter when or where they are set – ancient China of Crouching Tiger, 19th-century England of Sense and Sensibility, or 1960s Wyoming of Brokeback Mountain. “ – his characters all speak the same language, namely the language of suppressed desire.

Even having seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon countless times over the years, when I last visited I was still ill-prepared for the sudden onslaught of emotions in the film’s final moments. Zhang’s wild moves and Star-is-born aura burn as bright as ever, but ultimately it’s Yeoh’s incantation of thwarted desire that reverberates the longest.

In the film, two women prepare for battle "Crouching tiger, hidden dragon."

Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

(Sony Pictures Classics)

For all the extraordinary physical virtuosity of her performance – much of which, amazingly, she delivered while recovering from an ankle injury – Yeoh simply invites us to watch Shu Lien think and feel for most of the film. They catch the exquisite sadness in her eyes as she sees Mu Bai again, a sadness she consciously puts aside as she tries to do what is best for others, rather than for, with all the discipline and selflessness that has been instilled in her herself. But what does her life of sacrifice bring her ultimately? What good has it done her, or anyone else, to put her sense of duty above her desire for happiness?

The film is haunted by this question, as well as the debate it implicitly invites between Eastern and Western traditions. And in the final moments, I think Yeoh’s performance gives us an answer. It’s evident in Shu Lien’s naked outburst of emotion as she realizes she’s finally lost something she never allowed herself to have. Yeoh shows us a soul laid bare with all of its yearnings, anguish and loss – and makes you wonder why any of it needed to be hidden. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A masterpiece returns to theaters

Sarah Ridley

Sarah Ridley is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Sarah Ridley joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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