Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriters: Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, Kuo Jung Tsai
Adapted from: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Wang Dulu
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Cheng Pei-pei, Sihung Lung
Nominations: Picture, Director – Ang Lee, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Score, Song – “A Love Before Time”, Foreign Language Film
Wins: Cinematography, Art Direction, Score, Foreign Language Film

Nowadays, visual effects are so prevalent in movies that oftentimes audiences aren’t even aware a film has any visual effects.  One of my favorite examples of this is The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013); none of the shots highlighted in the effects reel would have us thinking that anything in the shots was fabricated or pasted together.  As the adage goes, the best visual effects are the ones you don’t notice.  On the other hand, when a film has subpar effects, you can’t help but notice the fakery—that in itself wouldn’t be so bad (that cheapness and “use what you got” filmmaking has a place), but when a film works at creating realistic environments and characters only to have its climactic set piece location and/or character look cartoony it’s not just a letdown; it’s awkward and cringy because what’s on screen is what a lot of decisionmakers said was the best effects they could get.  It’s akin to a fashion show with cutting edge designs throughout ending with a burlap sack.

I bring up visual effects with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because of how few there (seemingly) are.  If the filmmakers are to be believed, the only CGI in the entire film was used to remove the ropes and harnesses worn by the actors during the fight scenes.  That ties in which the best kind of visual effects because, honestly, did anyone notice the equipment was removed?  Of course, we know things were taken out or hidden, but the ropes not being there didn’t distract from the scenes.  To be sure, there are probably more than a hundred shots in the film that required some kind of effect applied to, but watching the balletic movements, we totally buy that the actors were able to accomplish those impossible stunts.

And that leads to another point: we see the actors performing the stunts.  While the fight scenes do feature some quick edits, never do we doubt that Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi are not the ones in the scenes.  Ang Lee’s use of two shots and medium shots and his avoidance of close-ups—at least extreme close-ups—ensures that we see the actors’ faces as they perform the intricate fight choreography.  And yes, the action scenes are just as fantastic and exciting in 2020 as they were in 2000.

Overall, though, those fight scenes wouldn’t have much meaning and stakes if we didn’t care about the characters participating.  From their first scene, we’re fully on board with Shu Lien and Mu Bai accepting and acknowledging their mutual love for each other.  Their scenes ache with so much unrequited love that your heart nears bursting each time they don’t admit what they’re feeling.  And by the time they finally face the truth of their relationship it’s too late for them to do anything further.  The irony of these two great warriors willing to put their bodies through the physical wringer of battle yet unable to quell their emotional fear is poignant and powerful.  More often than not, in movies and in life, the most difficult struggles we face are against ourselves.  Both Shu Lien and Mu Bai have trained diligently and learned to know all they can about their physical capabilities and their ability to find peace through meditation, but they’ve never taken the time to be brave enough to express their true love.  They’re Romeo and Juliet as well as the star-crossed lovers’ families all rolled into two internal conflictions of raw emotion.

There’s some solace, however, in Mu Bai’s parting words.  He does reveal his love for Shu Lien, regretting having not done so before.  But more than regret, he has hope; and with that hope is an eternity with his beloved.  Our bodies may die, but our love for one another has no end.  It’s an odd message to get from a wuxia/kung fu movie, but that, arguably, is a brilliant testament to the lasting beauty of the film: it transcends its genre to be a film that resonates beyond expectations and lingers in our hearts longer than you’d expect.

I want to tell you with my last breath that I have always loved you.  I would rather be a ghost, drifting by your side as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you.  Because of your love, I will never be a lonely spirit.

Li Mu Bai