“No growth without resistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again.”
Could those lines be more appropriate to describe this infamous year? In the past months we’ve been tested. I honestly can tell you that I would have never imagined that I could learn to adapt – or be able to find inner strengths to help me endure. I also would have never imagined that I would be writing to you on a daily basis. Some days are more difficult than others, but I’ve learnt to exercise discipline, commitment and to restrain my frustrations. I have a really good friend who is an astrologer, and she had mentioned back in January that this year was meant for us to reassess the things that we no longer needed – including habits – and to discover new gifts within us. “Time to exercise new ways of thinking,” she advised at the beginning of 2020.
All of that crossed my mind when I watched Ang Lee’s transcendently beautiful epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000). The main players in the story that takes place in 18th-century Qing dynasty China – in particular the women – have been hiding their true strengths from others – as well as their true feelings. They’ve been confronting great restrictions – societal and otherwise, and it’s that teetering between release and restraint that becomes the main conflict. “Be strong but supple,” says Yu Shu Lien – the skilled warrior played by the magnificent Michelle Yeoh.
And then you levitate. Well, at least your heart does as you watch the first martial arts sequence in the film. It’s startling because of how quietly it starts and how effortless it looks. Shu Lien pursues a masked Jen – a very feline like thief who has taken the fabled sword “Green Destiny.” And the two women lithely leap to the roof tiles of the courtyard below a starry night – distant percussion ceremoniously underscoring their steps. The colors and composition recall Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief.” As they continue fighting – walking up the walls – they defy gravity – conventions and our expectations. We’re breathless. The little kid in you that got excited watching Mary Martin sing “I’m Flying” is born again – this time around you don’t see the awkward strings. One of them glides horizontally across the screen – still gracefully piercing the air. When I first saw this at the Telluride Film Festival – this sequence made the audience of sophisticated cinephiles applaud.
The plot is pure romantic melodrama at its core. Shu Lien has always loved Li Mu Bai – a Wudang swordsman. She was previously engaged to his best friend who died, but still bound by loyalty – neither of them has professed their love for one another. “To repress one’s feelings only makes them stronger,” she says. Considering retirement, Mu Bai gives his famous sword to a benefactor and it’s stolen by Jen – the daughter of a rich and powerful official. She is the pupil of the evil Jade Fox who in the past had killed Mu Bai’s teacher. The relationship between pupil and master reverberates through the film. The same is true with the contrast between Shu Lien and Jen – both women who are constricted by the expectations of society – and long to have what the other has. “I’m not an aristocrat, but I must still respect a woman’s duties,” Shu Lien tells Jen. The latter doesn’t fully grasp the extent of her talents and how to best put them to use.
“Time and space disappeared,” comments Mu Bai. I love this film because it fulfills your need for action, yet it also gives you visuals that are equivalent to poetry. The majestic fight sequences – choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping (famed for The Matrix) – are like musical numbers. The pinnacle of it all is one unforgettable duel in a bamboo forest where two warriors will stand on tree tops – the branches bending and yielding balletically. The fight will return back to earth, their feet lightly walking through water. Every time I see it takes my breath away. And those are the actors doing all the actual work. The computer technology that was used simply erased the strings attached to them. The film has a lot of humor and elegance.
Chow-Yun Fat is a heart-throb and his stoicism recalls Gary Cooper. Yeoh will steal your heart.
Shu Lien: “Whatever path you decide to take in this life… be true to yourself.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on Microsoft, iTunes, Vudu, Redbox, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, DIRECTV, FandangoNOW and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus and Kuo Jung Tsai. Based on the book by Du Lu Wang.
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Sihung Lung and Cheng Pei-pei
The Making of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
…”We started shooting in the Gobi Desert,” recalls director Ang Lee…”That night the crew got lost in the desert until 7 a.m. We finally got going, and after the second shot, a sandstorm came in.” Could things get worse? Ask producer Bill Kong. “The Gobi is the hottest, driest place on earth,” he says. “So each morning we lit incense for good luck. Well, we had dreadful luck–it rained sheets, nonstop, ruining our schedule. After a while one of the local people came around and said the gods must be smiling on us. We asked why. ‘Because you burned the incense,’ he said. ‘We burn the incense when we want it to rain.'” With good or bad luck, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ would have provided a stern challenge. Consider these factors: a $15 million action movie that was also to be a poignant, tragic romance; a fight choreographer, Yuen Wo-ping, who had won international acclaim for his work on ‘The Matrix’ and was bound to tangle with the soft-spoken, hard-to-budge Lee; a top-flight all-Asian cast featuring Chow Yun Fat (Hong Kong), Michelle Yeoh (Malaysia), Zhang Ziyi (Beijing) and Chang Chen (Taiwan). Only one of the stars–Zhang, then a 19-year-old ingenue–spoke anything like the classical mainland Mandarin that Lee demanded. At least these difficulties were built into the scenario. What no one expected was that Yeoh would injure her knee and need a month’s rehab in the U.S., or that the whole ordeal would be so damned exhausting. “We shot around the clock with two teams,” says Lee, 46. “I didn’t take one break in eight months, not even for half a day. I was miserable–I just didn’t have the extra energy to be happy. Near the end, I could hardly breathe. I thought I was about to have a stroke.”…Based on part of a Wang Du Lu novel from the 1930s, the script by James Schamus, Wang Huiling and Tsai Kuojung concerns the theft of a sword, the Green Destiny… The movie has its roots in Asian action movies of around 30 years ago. It quotes famous fight scenes from two films by the action master King Hu: “Come Drink with Me,” in which the young, fierce Cheng Peipei defeats an inn full of martial studs, and “A Touch of Zen,” with two knights doing battle in a grove of bamboo trees. Lee had the inspired–or crackpot–idea of staging the fight between Mubai and Jen on the trees’ branches, 60 ft. in the air. “I’d fantasized about this since boyhood,” Lee says, “but a lot of my ideas weren’t feasible or didn’t look good. Nobody, including Yuen, wanted to do the tree scene, for a simple reason: it’s almost impossible. The first three days of shooting were a complete waste. There were 20 or 30 guys below the actors trying to make them float. It was just chaotic.” Finally it worked–a scene so buoyant that the audience soars along with the stars.” (time.com)
Michelle Yeoh on Being Cast in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
“When I first met Ang, and he said to me he wanted to do “Sense and Sensibility” with martial arts I was very taken by the idea already so approaching this movie and filming in China was an incredible experience. No doubt it was a very harsh and hard, long, cold procedure, but then you know we have the most charismatic Chow Yun Fat. And I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for having an opposite star who was able to give me and help me delivery my own part, I think our part of the love story would not have come across so meaningful. Ang Lee is a very passionate director. If you meet him personally, he’s a very mild mannered, very softspoken, very quiet man, but he has the vision and he’s very determined to be able to put that on the silver screen. He knows exactly what he wants and he demands the best, the most from everyone, of not just his cast but also his crew. This time we were very fortunate that everyone, particularly the crew and then the cast of course, from Hong Kong, Beijing, Taiwan, mainly from Hong Kong and Beijing came together wanting to make this dream a reality. It was really truly a labor of love. The hours that they put in, the pay cut that they all took to do this was to hope that this vision would reach worldwide. For all our sake and all the hard work that we put into it, I’m very, very grateful that it is a success as it is today.” (asianconnections.com)
About Choreographer Yuen Woo-ping
Yuen was born in Guangzhou, China. His father, Simon Yuen Siu-tien, taught him kung fu and was a veteran of Peking opera, a tradition that provided a gateway into films for many stars of this era, including the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Filmmaking was a family affair for the Yuens. One of 10 children, six of his brothers also went into the film business. The siblings started out working on projects alongside their father, who was an action choreographer and occasional actor. Yuen received instruction on set from his father, but he would also observe what others were doing and keep an eye on how scenes were shot and what directions were given to actors. Like his contemporary Sammo Hung, after earning his chops as a stuntman and bit part actor, Yuen earned the right to work as an action choreographer himself. While Hung worked with legendary director King Hu, director of “A Touch of Zen,” Yuen received tutelage from Chor Yuen, director of wuxia hits like “Killer Clans” as well as the record-breaking comedy “The House of 72 Tenants.” Yuen’s big break came in 1978 when he was given the director’s chair for two kung fu flicks, “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master,” which would finally put their lead actor, Jackie Chan, on the map. The latter film in particular was especially popular. Both Yuen and Chan took a risk in “Drunken Master” by portraying Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hung – the subject of over 100 films – as immature and disobedient, albeit a talented fighter. The gamble paid off, though, and help set the tone for much of Chan’s career with its nascent mix of action and comedy. Yet while Chan’s popularity skyrocketed from that point on, Yuen’s career stagnated for much of the 80s. His success with “Drunken Master” saw him saddled with similar concepts like “Shaolin Drunkard” (1983) and “Drunken tai chi” (1984), even if the latter helped start the career of one Donnie Yen.
It wasn’t until 1988 and the action film “Tiger Cage” that Yuen entered a hot streak. A modest hit, Yuen followed “Tiger Cage” by directing “In the Line of Duty IV” (1989) and “Tiger Cage 2” (1990) – two hard-hitting action classics that featured the increasingly impressive skills of Yen alongside gun-toting Cynthia Khan. After working with Chan again as action director on “Twin Dragons” (1992) and new star Jet Li on “Once Upon a Time in China II” (1992), Yuen directed one of his biggest hits, “Iron Monkey” (1993), a personal favourite of his. By the time he had finished work on “Fist of Legend” (1994) – Jet Li’s reimagining of Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” – and the Michelle Yeoh fronted “Wing Chun” (1994), Yuen had established himself as one of the foremost professionals in his field anywhere in the world. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood eventually came calling. The Wachowskis, directors of “The Matrix,” were not the first to ask Yuen to come West. He had declined previous offers to work in America, believing his English was not good enough. Even for “The Matrix,” Yuen was hesitant to work stateside. “What happened then was that one of the producers of ‘The Matrix’ contacted Shaw Brothers to find me. They seemed to want me to go to Hollywood really badly, but I still didn’t want to go. Then Shaw Brothers [studio] told me that the producer was offering me a free ticket to Los Angeles, and all I had to do was turn up there and have a chat, and that I should go, as it would be the polite thing to do.” The rest is history. Yuen’s work on “The Matrix” helped redefine action cinema and introduced Western audiences to a number of long-time stylistic staples of Hong Kong actions films such as wire fu and gun fu. Even today, more than 20 years after “The Matrix” first hit screens, Yuen continues to be an inspiration. The ongoing “John Wick” franchise, one of the biggest action series in recent Hollywood history, stars Keanu Reeves and was directed by Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman who worked with both Reeves and Yuen on, yes, “The Matrix.” (scmp.com)
About Director Ang Lee
Born in 1954 in Pingtung, Taiwan, Ang Lee has become one of today’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. Ang graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1975 and then came to the U.S. to receive a B.F.A. Degree in Theatre/Theater Direction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Masters Degree in Film Production at New York University. At NYU, he served as Assistant Director on Spike Lee’s student film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.” After Lee wrote a couple of screenplays, he eventually appeared on the film scene with “Pushing Hands,” a dramatic-comedy reflecting on generational conflicts and cultural adaptation, centering on the metaphor of the grandfather’s Tai-Chi technique of “Pushing Hands.” “The Wedding Banquet” was Lee’s next film, an exploration of cultural and generational conflicts through a homosexual Taiwanese man who feigns a marriage in order to satisfy the traditional demands of his Taiwanese parents. It garnered Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The third movie in his trilogy of Taiwanese-Culture/Generation films, all of them featuring his patriarch figure Sihung Lung, was “Eat Drink Man Woman,” which received a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination. Lee followed this with “Sense and Sensibility,” his first Hollywood-mainstream movie. It acquired a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and won Best Adapted Screenplay, for the film’s screenwriter and lead actress, Emma Thompson. Lee was also voted the year’s Best Director by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. Lee and frequent collaborator James Schamus next filmed “The Ice Storm,” an adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel involving 1970s New England suburbia. The movie acquired the 1997 Best Screenplay at Cannes for screenwriter James Schamus, among other accolades. The Civil War drama “Ride with the Devil” soon followed and received critical praise, but it was Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that is considered one of his greatest works, a sprawling period film and martial-arts epic that dealt with love, loyalty and loss. It swept the Oscar nominations, eventually winning Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Best Director at the Golden Globes, and became the highest grossing foreign-language film ever released in America. Lee then filmed the comic-book adaptation, “Hulk” – an elegantly and skillfully made film with nice action scenes. Lee has also shot a short film – “Chosen” (aka “Hire, The Chosen”) – and…won the 2005 Best Director Academy Award for “Brokeback Mountain,” a film based on a short story by Annie Proulx. In 2012 Lee directed “Life of Pi” which earned 11 Academy Award nominations and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Director. In 2013 Ang Lee was selected as a member of the main competition jury at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. (tisch.nyu.edu) His most recent films include “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2016) and Gemini Man in 2019.