The lights dim and the curtain opens, revealing a gorgeous Chinese countryside. Suddenly, swordsmen fly through the sky and beautiful women exchange bone-crushing blows. This is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a sweeping Asian action film of the wu xia(martial chivalry) variety that has become a modest box-office success in a fairly xenophobic industry.
Director Ang Lee's film has received numerous honors, including Golden Globes for Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Director at the Jan. 21 awards ceremony. Though it plays in only about 160 theaters nationwide, Crouching Tiger has made $37 million and is set to overtake the $57 million made by Roberto Benigni's 1998 Life Is Beautiful, the top-grossing foreign film in America.
Just five years ago, Hollywood distributors would never have considered a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So why has Sony Pictures Classics scored a small hit with this hidden dragon?
On the most immediate, visual level, there's Crouching Tiger's cast. With his undeniable good looks and charisma, Chow Yun Fat exploded from cult status to mainstream popularity in America with such films as The Corruptorand The Replacement Killers. In Crouching Tiger, he plays Li Mu Bai, a heroic swordsman who is giving up his killing ways. His counterpart, Yui Hsui Lien, is played by Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies), whose beauty is equaled only by her eagerness to do her own stunts. How many American leading ladies can claim that? Not to be outdone, gorgeous newcomer Zhang Ziyi shines as Jen. Her poignant portrayal of a warrior choosing between her independence and her duty is the crux of the film.
Another factor in Crouching Tiger's success is Taiwanese director Lee, whose movies, such as Sense and Sensibility, have garnered multiple Oscar nominations. Educated at New York University, Lee has shown his range in everything from dramas (The Ice Storm)to Westerns (Ride With the Devil). In his hands, Crouching Tiger is no mere fight film. Lee fluidly weaves two love stories—between Li and Yui and between Jen and her lover Lo (played by Chang Chen)—and combat scenes choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, master of The Matrix.
Then there is Sony's marketing machine, without which John and Jane Doe might never have heard of the film, let alone seen it. Sony effectively played up the stunning fights and strong critical acclaim, never mentioning the two words that usually make for a box-office bomb—"foreign" and "subtitles"—and without giving away key plot points.
But aside from these factors—fabulous cast and crew and strong studio backing—the film's success is also due to its unique take on the martial-arts genre. While Asian studios have churned out kung-fu films for decades, the films have rarely crossed the Pacific. That is, until Bruce Lee arrived on the scene and single-handedly created the genre in America, first as Kato in The Green Hornet and then in Enter the Dragon (1973). But Lee's death in 1973 prevented the martial-arts genre from blossoming. Asian studios tried to replace him but always with dreadful results. The notoriously low production values, ridiculous stunts and poor dubbing were so lousy that Mike Myers' parody of the genre in Wayne's World 2—in a scene in which Wayne challenges his Chinese girlfriend's father to a hilarious, badly lip-synched duel—was hardly distinguishable from its execrable targets.
Asian action films have cookie-cutter scripts almost always based on the revenge story. In Jet Li's debut Shaolin Temple(1982), he learns the secrets of Shaolin kung fu to avenge his father's death. In Fearless Hyena (1979), the movie that cemented Jackie Chan's stardom in Hong Kong, Chan searches for his grandfather's killers. Not exactly sophisticated.
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While Crouching Tiger includes a modest revenge subplot, it avoids the usual clichs and focuses on the romance. And unlike most testosterone-powered failures, Crouching Tiger features two female protagonists and a middle-aged, female villain.
Crouching Tiger further breaks the mold with its surreal fight scenes. While people expect Chaplin-esque humor in Jackie Chan fights (Shanghai Noon) and unrealistic, Superman-like exploits in Jet Li movies (Black Mask), Crouching Tiger takes the kung-fu film into new territory, blending wide-angle shots borrowed from the Asian aesthetic with Hollywood's fast-cut, closeup edits. (The latter technique effectively disguises Chow's lack of martial-arts training.) Fight choreographer Yuen organizes a wide array of styles, from high-flying kicks to dazzling swordplay. With a $15 million budget, Lee uses seamless computer-generated effects to enhance action that blows away any of the hand-to-hand combat in the $100 million Mission: Impossible 2.
Ultimately, Crouching Tiger fulfills something other martial-arts films do not: America's need for something more authentic than the "martial arts" crap produced by poseurs like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. The yearning for Asian-style fights has only grown since Bruce Lee's death, as evidenced by the popularity enjoyed by John Woo, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. With a romantic story and fierce female characters, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial-arts movie turned on its head and given a heart. It satisfies the yearning America never realized she had.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonis now playing countywide.