Likely to be the first Taoist chop-socky extravaganza to cut it as an American art house fave with mainstream crossover potential, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is nothing if not original. Ang Lee’s nineteenth-century tale of two pairs of star-crossed lovers and a psychotic middle-aged villainess, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), begins plainly enough with a worn-out Wuxia knight-errant, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yunfat), visiting his lady love, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), and asking her to safeguard his sword, the Green Destiny. But when the talismanic weapon is stolen—all too obviously by the pampered governor’s daughter, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who fancies herself a martial-arts warrior—the movie turns into an airborne metaphysical fantasy with Shu Lien skipping and swooping across Beijing’s rooftops after her Catwoman-like rival. And you can’t see a single wire.
Lee here outdoes the barely repressed sexual hysteria of his Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997) with some of the most audacious set pieces in living memory—the magnificently novelettish Gobi Desert flashback romance between Jen and her bandit pursuer Lo (Chang Chen), and a gravity-defying climactic face-off amid the topmost foliage of a bamboo forest. Breathtaking isn’t the word for it, but it’s the one that’ll be used the most when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opens.
Though you are Taiwanese, did making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in China represent a spiritual homecoming for you?
It was a homecoming to the culture I was brought up with, but not a literal homecoming. My mother came from Beijing, and I heard all about Chinese culture from her and through books, tales from the elderly, schoolteachers, movies, television, and history. But the imaginary China I learned about doesn’t really exist. It’s a lost society that in some ways is more real than the real China, which has been through so many changes—Communism, Westernization, whatever. The homecoming came in looking for a pure China to fulfill my boyhood fantasy. The shoot didn’t go smoothly, so it was an emotionally and physically draining experience. Everyday life was [fraught], but it was spiritually rewarding.
Did you have to get the approval of the Chinese government, which has censored some of the Fifth Generation films that have used historical backdrops to criticize modern China?
Yes, but it wasn’t hard. Things are quite tense between Taiwan and China, so everyone stayed low-key. The Chinese were quite benevolent toward the film. The only advice I got was to have Lo speak in pure Mandarin because the authorities want to seem politically correct. I think the Chinese miss that abstract China as much as I do, if not more so, because everywhere you go you see traces of that culture being demolished. I sense they welcomed the fact that I was searching for that pure China without criticizing them politically, although I think the film has a lot to do with Chinese repression. It doesn’t matter if China is five thousand years old or not—it’s a very repressed culture.
The film summons up the ghosts of Chinese history and mythology.
It’s like a big dream to me, a big mystery. In the way the film searches for the character of Jen, it’s searching for the hidden dragon in Chinese history and our own secret desires. Watching her rebel, it gets you all psyched up and crazy. The main influences are Confucianism and Taoism. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, and everybody else except the two evil women—Jen and Jade Fox—live according to Confucianism. The Tao, “the way,” is manifested in the sword, the Green Destiny, the Chinese translation of which means the most remote sort of greenness. It’s the ultimate yin where the yang comes from—the non-existence where all existence comes from. We’re all attracted to that negative space when we pursue something we don’t know, something that will overpower us. For men, it’s women. Li knows something bad is going to happen, so he tries to give up the Green Destiny, but there is no way he will give up the excitement of being a warrior. So it starts a vicious cycle. According to Buddhism, the only way to transcend yourself is by eliminating personal desire. If you can do that, you will be able to find the strength, harmony, and balance to fit yourself into life. I found that interesting in the context of martial arts movies, which were introduced to us mostly in the Shaolin form, with the accent on fighting and excitement. Putting these opposing philosophies together creates tension and provokes thoughts and emotions. And on top of that, of course, the film is a fantasy about moral justice and romance.
Do you follow Taoist principles?
I’m like Li—there’s a conflict between Taoism and Confucianism. And the third part, of course, is that I live like a capitalist. [laughs] I try to make my life work according to those Chinese philosophies, but as a filmmaker I am, sad to say, very involved in trying to inspire and impress people. I didn’t know I had that in me. What is it for? Having a good time? I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it.
Why did you choose women protagonists?
I used women to examine the social structure of the genre. I’ve also found, over the years, that I do women characters better than men. Maybe it’s because I’m not a macho guy. I like male characters like the ones played by Winston Chao in The Wessing Banquet , Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm, or Tobey Maguire in Ride With the Devil (1999). They tend not to know what to do, and somehow the women make the decisions. That probably reflects my own life and interests. I also find I’m not interested in sassy women—just strong women. I feel comfortable speaking through them. In Crouching Tiger, it was interesting to have women cutting into a male-dominated society of the past and a male-dominated genre.
For all the fighting in the film, it’s hardly violent.
It has more to do with Chinese opera and acrobatics than martial arts. There are violent moments—for example, when Jade Fox throws that disc like a Frisbee to cut into the man’s head. But I was more interested in getting a creepy atmosphere, as when Jen, this young, good-looking girl, takes Li’s sword, so that he, the master, has to chase the student.
The sexual tension between them is jarring.
Yes. The showdown in the bamboo forest is full of sexual tension. It’s a violation of the rules of the genre—a different kind of violence. What do you think this sword that the two women are chasing stands for? [laughs] It’s pretty obvious. When Jen steals the sword, Shu Lien chases after it because Li promised her he’d retire as a warrior, which means they could marry. The Chinese are not good at verbalizing emotions, so as a filmmaker you have to use objects and metaphors to get them across.
Shu Lien and Li are role models. Their sense of justice begins with their power, which they have attained by sacrificing their passion, desire and youth. They envy Jen’s youth, which is why they seize her and try to tame her, but she can never be tamed. She’s a mystery they can’t figure out.
The romantic idyll in the desert between Jen and Lo is like something from a David Lean film or Duel in the Sun .
When I decided to do the movie, the first question I asked myself was, “Do I want to do the flashback?” For forty years, it’s been unfashionable to do it in one big chunk like that. But I was making a martial arts film, and by nature B movies and pulp fiction are meant to be public entertainment, so I decided it was an opportunity for some broad strokes—if The Ice Storm was Cubism, this film is collage. I wanted to find a landscape with a lot of red elements for the first part of the sequence, to contrast with the latter part, which has a lot of green. I found the red dirt I wanted in the Gobi Desert, and for the green we went to Southern China where there’s a lot of water and white clouds.
When Jen beats up all the guys in the tavern is that a nod to saloon fights in Westerns?
It’s a tradition from both Westerns and martial-arts films. The Chinese tavern is a good stage for a fight with tables, dishes, and chairs to smash up. So I used that cliché by having Jen storming in like the Tasmanian devil and demolishing everything, including all these mediocre guys.
Where does she fly to at the end?
I don’t want to answer that. I think it’s an image of liberation. To infinity, maybe.
Did you answer all the questions you asked yourself when you made the movie?
No. I think I went through some experience with the Taoist spirit, which tells you life is an enigma. I think I’m dealing with my midlife issues through my films. I try to grasp something with each experience, and sometimes succeed, sometimes fail. It’s more about expressing yourself than about finding answers.
Interview, December 2000