It ignited the martial arts obsession throughout the 2000s, and has left a much greater legacy on filmmakers with its entertaining sensual feast, better even than what Star Wars ever did. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the type of film that doesn’t only try to win over the audience with visual and audible stimulation, it ultimately asks a simple question in the most subtle of ways, “A dragon thrives beyond the top of the food chain, and it could eat five tigers in one sitting no problem, so what would it possibly be hiding from?” While subconsciously pondering that rhetorical question, you conclude a dragon would be hiding from people, the same ones who lead tigers to near-extinction. If dragons were real, those same poachers would crave their scales, ancient folklore’s most valuable items. From reading mythic legends, a dragon by nature does not crouch away, yet such a remarkable beast has no choice but to fear us.
The set pieces and costumes of this feature shimmer its colors bright to reach the extent of dragon scales, even if they are still obviously constructed inside a studio space. It’s among the few things in this production that fail to hold up twenty years later. Others include the cameraman running without camera stabilization to the pace of horses, and some unnecessary uses of slow-motion. The director of photography would have worked better shooting in normal speed with a consistent style to convey the power of the 400-year-old green destiny sword. In addition, the flying effects look awful, as the actors are so obviously on wires, especially when gliding through the trees. One or two instances also feature some pretty bad makeup effects where bruises and cuts look as purple as a Crayola marker.
When not paying too much attention to those elements though, you would then come to appreciate how deeply the script studies one’s spiritual connection to a weapon. Every character’s personal arc revolves around the green destiny sword, a series of journeys that kick off with an eerily quiet sword thief, and it climaxes with a fight sequence where one fighter changes her choice of weapons multiple times. Whether if the characters prefer to fight with dragon’s claws, a swinging tail, or fire breath, their fighting style conveys more about who they are than dialogue ever could. That psychological study gets much denser as they chase each other through the air in gravity-defying leaps; they glide on the rooftops, on the walls, in the forest, all with the grace of a giant lizard. Stunts are everywhere, even in the backdrop, where little girls work as street performers for the villagers. It’s not even a random piece of worldbuilding either, it serves subtle yet powerful social commentary on what China’s history has expected out of feminism right at an early age.
As the story parallels a sad search for traits no human could ever obtain, it takes long wise breaks from the main plot to survey the culture to a much broader extent. The result is an “ensemble picture” structure, meaning, there’s no concrete main protagonist, rather, a large cast shares the narrative authority. It seems to start as a traditional narrative as the first twenty minutes focus on a woman who guards the green destiny sword, she seems to be the main protagonist until focus quickly shifts onto the sword-napper. The two women control the story, which illustrates the blade’s dual symmetry, how one side masters such a work of craftsmanship, and the other abuses its mastery. The female leads bring the philosophy into play, but not by punching and kicking, as that is kept to a relative minimum, rather, the philosophy is put into play by the choices they make.
The rest of the imagery acts out the philosophical implications as well, a shot of crows fleeing from the trees represent the opposing sides between the two subjects about to battle. Those crows symbolize the weapon of the fighter in the wrong as similar to an animal that eats rotten decay. It also shows how the fighter in the right wants the opposing side to flee from the trees. Even those rats with wings are closer to dragons than people are... maybe humans should aspire to be like those scavengers?
As the graphic action continues, it borderlines R-rated content until the end inspires you with the strangest form of joy ever felt. It’s an ending that shouldn’t be happy, but is so because it affirms that the death of a dragon means the life of a human is saved. Ang Lee flaunts that nature with the strong variety of views, from vast temple to vast desert. Every last detail Lee includes is thought out well enough to strengthen the significant truths, that nothing of tangible substance can ever be mastered, rather, inanimate objects are themselves the master over their makers and users.
In seeing all this film’s polarizing extremes clash, it declares that however awesome your skills may be, you shall never top the velocity of dragon breath. That includes me: no matter how much power I try to exercise by drawing, I can never be as great or as godly as I aspire to be. While we must aspire to be as mighty as fictional dragons, we must at the same time humble ourselves into knowing it’s not possible to meet that level exactly. Ang Lee has such a keen understanding of that harsh reality, as his true masterpiece, Life of Pi, theologically studies the beautiful story of God’s mercy. The downside though is that this earlier film of his right here misses some core components, such as the acknowledgment of a higher deity. Some conservative viewers could be turned off by the content, such as premarital sex or the exaggerated violence. The average viewer would have to work a bit harder to find the more religious applications to pull out of the feature, which in a way actually gives it more credibility for not speaking down to its audience.
In this current insanity-inducing time, we all are pretty afraid, and have lost unity with our inner spirits, so we all need artists now more than ever. In whatever way Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may impact you personally, just a one-time watch will provide deeper understanding of yourself and others.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!