Ang Lee might have brought wuxia to the West, but it's Yuen Woo-ping's dazzling fight choreography that truly captivates, writes Kambole Campbell
Huddled together with my younger brother in a barren living room, watching through an old computer placed simply on the floor, I was first struck by the floaty, effortless, wilfully artificial jumps of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the age of 10, having just moved to the UK from the southern hemisphere.
While such extravagant wirework would have been a common sight for anyone already familiar with wuxia cinema, I had never seen anything like it. The balletic, lightning-fast fight choreography. Single light steps propelling the performers high into the air, their flights continuing with running legs as though their characters had wings. Impactful flurries of fists mixed with intricate and immaculate footwork. And every skirmish – contrary to what audiences were used to in their American equivalents – firing on all cylinders. I watched it obsessively, partly because it was one of maybe two DVDs in our possession (the other was Beavis and Butthead Do America, an ill-advised purchase on my father's part considering how old we were), but mostly because I was captivated by the graceful spectacle.
The film, directed by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, had evidently left a similar impression on wider Western audiences at the time of its release in the December of 2000. It had gone on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film produced overseas in American history, as well as receiving the most Academy Award nominations for a film in the non-English language. Lee already had a broad range of experience with genre at this point (he made the Western film Ride with the Devil the year before), and had navigated the boundaries between East and West with his early family dramas, like The Wedding Banquet.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, first released on this day 20 years ago, found international acclaim in Lee’s blend of his favoured themes – the clash of tradition, duty and repressed emotional urges – alongside dazzling genre action. Later, I came to better understand the film's tragedy and subtle emotional power, as the violent duties of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) begin to diminish their chances at real happiness and enlightenment. But what initially captivated me was the spectacular work of Yuen Woo-ping, a renowned martial arts film director and fight choreographer whose star was already rising in Hollywood prior to Crouching Tiger, having been recruited to choreograph and advise on fights for films such as Lethal Weapon 4 and the Wachowskis' vastly influential The Matrix.
Through its mix of intricate fight choreography with wide-open vistas (one of the film’s most striking clashes taking place amongst bamboo treetops), Crouching Tiger harkened back to the serenity of the wuxia films helmed by one of the genre’s forefathers, King Hu – something signposted by Lee’s casting of legendary actress Cheng Pei-pei, the lead in 1966 wuxia classic Come Drink with Me, as the film’s villain Jade Fox. In recalling the genre’s roots for a wider audience, Lee and his collaborators helped to open up the wuxia genre to more decompressed and contemplative works – an effect that has carried through to now, considering the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2015 film The Assassin.
Crouching Tiger stands at the head of a crop of late '90s to early 2000s wuxia films (such as Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time) that sought more introspective conflict. Woo-ping’s contribution to Crouching Tiger is perhaps best represented in a scene where Li Mu Bai stands alone in a courtyard, practicing with his legendary sword “Green Destiny,” graceful movements resembling that of a dancer as much as they do a renowned fighter – and a far cry from the explosive flair of his work under filmmaker John Woo. The use of environment furthers the impact of these moments. There are, of course, bar fights and clashes in ornate courtyards, but there are also more dreamlike flights through the tops of bamboo trees, stitched together with hazy editing and camerawork that borders on impressionism.
As with his previous work (such as his own film Drunken Master), Woo-ping’s injection of comedy into the fight choreography also smartly brings these sequence back down to earth, as these seemingly superhuman fighters are made human by their mishaps – the visual of Yeoh struggling to lift a particularly large weapon in a fight and angrily throwing it aside in favour of something smaller, for example. From the very start there’s plenty of slapstick on display in these conflicts, too, as time and time again less talented combatants are made to look like utter fools, bonked on the head and knocked away rather than just brutally slaughtered as they would in their American counterparts.
Though having referred to these fights as dance-like, the real magic is that they never feel like rehearsed steps in a performance. Movements are forceful and lethal, though occasionally chaotic and haphazard in the missteps that come as a result of an opponent’s relentlessly flowing strikes. The fighting of Crouching Tiger comes to feel more akin to emotional expression as a result, moves standing in where words begin to fail or fall short. If, when I first watched the film, I didn’t quite make sense of the significance of every stolen glance or reflection on lost love and time, I did at the very least understand this was a very different, unique kind of action film where characters' inner feelings were defined by the manner in which they moved.
Considering the film’s generally melancholic and reflective tone, it almost feels counter-intuitive to focus in on the action, when the rest of the picture mostly ruminates on or mourns the call to violence. But truth be told, it’s a huge part of the film, and probably the reason why I gave it the time of day in the first place. The hook of that action, as a sort of trojan horse into the film's deeper themes, was part of Lee's conscious effort to introduce wuxia to a wider western audience, while demonstrating its potential for contemplation. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon paved the way for the likes of Zhang Yimou’s Hero, House of Flying Daggers and others for international success. And it served as my gateway to the wuxia films that came before it, as my curiosity towards this idiosyncratic art of combat only continued to grow.
Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer whose bylines have appeared in Sight & Sound, Empire, Little White Lies, and Polygon. You can follow him on Twitter here.