‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’: A masterpiece returns to theaters

It begins with a plaintive cello solo, adopted by a crashing of drums: Serene melancholy yields to pulse-quickening pleasure. Right from the beginning, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is constructed on a collection of tensions that the director Ang Lee is in no hurry to resolve. He eases us right into a misplaced world — a Chinese village, someday through the Qing dynasty — the place two extremely expert fighters and longtime allies, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), are about to have a long-overdue reunion. They have some essential enterprise regarding a visit to Beijing, a lethal sword and Mu Bai’s impending retirement, however their cautious physique language tells a extra private story.

And Lee, to his credit score, provides them the time and house to inform it. In each soft-edged gaze and wistful smile that passes between Mu Bai and Shu Lien, we will learn years of unfulfilled, unarticulated longing. “So what will you do now?” she asks. His reply — he has a grave to go to and a rating to settle — appears like each an trustworthy one and a deflection. The lack of hurry is essential, not solely to the story’s distinctive circulation and rhythm but in addition to its that means. For this can be a film about, amongst different issues, the mysterious inflections and operations of time: It’s about how a furiously kinetic struggle scene could make the world stand nonetheless, and the way years of silent struggling can move by immediately.

A whole lot of time has handed since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” first stormed festivals, theaters and the gates of Hollywood itself in 2000. Returning to the massive display this weekend in a digital 4K restoration, the film has misplaced none of its dreamy magnificence or hypnotic energy, and that energy nonetheless builds as assuredly and methodically as ever.

If you have been amongst those that noticed the film on its preliminary launch, lured by experiences that Lee had made essentially the most kick-ass motion image in years, you might need felt a twinge of impatience at these first quarter-hour of dialogue-rich, action-free scene setting. Or maybe you have been drawn in by the classical refinement of the filmmaking, the understated gravity of the performances, the practical sense of grounding in an completely fantastical world. Operating by his personal legal guidelines of cinematic physics, Lee should first set up gravity earlier than he can defy it.

Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh within the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

(Sony Pictures Classics)

But defy it he does. The sword falls into impetuous younger arms, heralding the primary of “Crouching Tiger’s” many exhilaratingly fluid transformations. We are thrust right into a martial-arts film for the ages, sure, but in addition a sly tragicomedy of cross-generational angst. (The intricately plotted screenplay, tailored from a 1941-42 serialized novel by Chinese creator Wang Du Lu, was written by Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo-jung.) For the remainder of the story, amid hovering desert interludes and bamboo-forest intrigues, Shu Lien and Mu Bai will take turns making an attempt to rein in Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), an endearing and exasperating insurgent spirit intent on seizing the love and liberation that our two older heroes have lengthy denied themselves.

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Shu Lien and Jen’s first motion sequence, brilliantly staged by the good Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Wo-ping and set to the propulsive drumbeats of Tan Dun’s lyrical rating, instantly cemented “Crouching Tiger’s” place in film legend. As observers would inform it many times, the sight of those two warriors hovering magically over the rooftops, then participating in a shocking show of hand-to-hand, wall-to-wall fight, was so charming that it led audiences on the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to erupt in spontaneous applause. It was the primary signal that “Crouching Tiger,” a seamless weave of art-house formalism and chopsocky kinetics, was going to be a a lot larger deal stateside than any Mandarin-language wuxia image had any cause to anticipate. And it additionally confirmed that the Taiwanese-born Lee, coming off a number of acclaimed English-language dramas together with “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “The Ice Storm” (1997), had pulled off one other of the chameleon-like swerves that might come to outline his profession.

The relaxation was historical past, up to a degree. “Crouching Tiger” opened to the yr’s most ecstatic evaluations, no less than within the West. The Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote that the film’s “blend of the magical, the mythical and the romantic fills a need in us we might not even realize we had,” and audiences definitely appeared to agree. The film grossed greater than $213 million worldwide and have become essentially the most profitable non-English-language movie of all time within the U.S., a title it has but to relinquish. By distinction, it proved a significant crucial and business disappointment in Asia, the place Lee’s contribution to the well-worn wuxia annals struck many as an anemic, inauthentic, Western-pandering imitation. (More than a number of additionally dinged Hong Kong stars Yeoh and Chow for his or her conspicuously imperfect Mandarin.)

A man and a woman look at each other in the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh within the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

(Sony Pictures Classics)

If “Crouching Tiger” was largely rejected within the East, its embrace within the West was rapturous but certified. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and gained 4 of them (for foreign-language movie, cinematography, artwork course and unique rating). But it didn’t win for Lee’s course or for greatest image; it could be one other 19 years earlier than a non-English-language film, the South Korean thriller “Parasite,” would lastly snag the academy’s prime prize. And regardless of the approval for Yeoh, a beloved international star, and Zhang, a revelatory newcomer, “Crouching Tiger” obtained zero nominations for performing — an oversight possible born of some unexamined prejudices, together with the belief that martial arts and the dramatic arts inhabit mutually unique realms.

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The academy’s traditionally awful file of honoring Asian actors has fortunately improved lately. In 2021, Steven Yeun turned the primary Asian American performer to obtain a lead actor Oscar nomination; his film, “Minari,” additionally gained a supporting actress trophy for Korean actor Yuh-Jung Youn. And this yr, a file 4 actors of Asian descent have obtained nominations: Hong Chau (“The Whale”) and the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” trio of Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu and, in the end, Yeoh herself, who turned the primary self-identifying Asian performer to be nominated for lead actress.

The timing of the “Crouching Tiger” rerelease is definitely no coincidence; neither was a screening of the film finally fall’s Telluride Film Festival, with Yeoh in attendance. The message is evident, and fairly inarguable: With “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” itself an amusingly blatant love letter to Yeoh’s stardom, academy voters have an opportunity to handle a significant previous oversight.

Whatever comes of that marketing campaign, “Crouching Tiger’s” well timed return does excavate some fascinating parallels with “Everything Everywhere.” In each photos, Yeoh performs a world-weary girl doing battle with a fiery youthful one, who appears to scorn her lifetime of devotion and sacrifice. In “Everything Everywhere,” it’s a cosmic wrestle between an Asian American mom and her daughter. In “Crouching Tiger,” Shu Lien initially regards Jen as a wayward youthful sister, somebody to be set on the fitting path with coaxing phrases and, if wanted, machetes, spears and swords. It’s no shock that Yeoh, along with her commanding poise and regal bearing, has been solid so usually as tough-love mentor figures. (She and Zhang would later play a distinct type of instructor and pupil in 2005’s misbegotten “Memoirs of a Geisha.”)

A rider on a horse in the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Chang Chen within the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

(Sony Pictures Classics)

If there’s a cause Yeoh and Zhang are so powerfully matched in “Crouching Tiger,” it’s that the stress between Shu Lien and Jen — not simply as people but in addition as representatives of dueling generations and worldviews — takes natural form via their conversations and struggle scenes alike. The revelation of character via motion is a foundational cinematic precept, however not often has it been as eloquently demonstrated as in that over-the-rooftops chase scene. Even one thing so simple as a closeup of Shu Lien’s foot stomping down on Jen’s mid-battle tells the story of the movie in miniature: One girl desires to take flight, however the different retains dragging her again to earth. Your sympathies could also be divided initially, however after some time, you begin to want that it may finish one other method: that Jen may latch onto Shu Lien and take her away, permitting them to flee not as enemies however as allies.

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But it isn’t meant to be, and it so not often is in Lee’s achingly romantic work. It’s a truism of his greatest films that irrespective of when or the place they happen — within the historical China of “Crouching Tiger,” within the Nineteenth-century England of “Sense and Sensibility” or the ’60s Wyoming sheep nation of “Brokeback Mountain” — his characters are all fluent in the identical tongue, specifically the language of repressed need. Even after having watched “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” numerous occasions through the years, I used to be nonetheless unwell ready, on my most up-to-date revisit, for the sudden rush of emotion within the film’s remaining moments. Zhang’s ferocious strikes and star-is-born aura burn as brightly as ever, however it’s lastly Yeoh’s evocation of thwarted longing that resonates the longest.

Two women prepare to do battle in the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh within the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

(Sony Pictures Classics)

For all of the extraordinary bodily virtuosity of her efficiency — a lot of which she delivered, astonishingly, whereas recovering from an ankle harm — Yeoh for many of the film merely invitations us to observe Shu Lien pondering and feeling. You register the beautiful disappointment in her eyes as she sees Mu Bai once more, a disappointment that she consciously places apart as she makes an attempt, with all of the self-discipline that has been instilled in her, to do what’s greatest for others reasonably than herself. But what does her lifetime of sacrifice in the end earn her? What has it benefited her, or anybody, to raise her sense of responsibility over her eager for happiness?

The film is haunted by that query, in addition to the talk it implicitly invitations between Eastern and Western traditions. And within the remaining moments, I believe, Yeoh’s efficiency provides us a solution. It’s revealed in Shu Lien’s bare outpouring of emotion, as she realizes she’s lastly misplaced one thing she by no means allowed herself to own within the first place. Yeoh reveals us a soul being laid naked, in all its need, anguish and loss — and he or she makes you surprise why, for even a second, any of it needed to be hidden in any respect.