Breaking Down the Bamboo Dance in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a 2000 action fantasy film about a young Chinese warrior who steals a sword from a famed swordsman and then escapes into a world of romantic adventure with a mysterious man in the frontier of the nation.
It’s a little hard to put into perspective the enormous cultural impact of Ang Lee‘s martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie that came out of nowhere and unexpectedly became an international sensation, and to date, the highest grossing foreign language film in US cinema history. It ushered in a brief fascination and interest in more like it, though is still credited with being one of the most influential in the genre, at least in the United States. It’s a truly thrilling visual experience, with some breath-taking action that most definitely won over a lot of fans, but it’s its deeply affecting story that proves the greater reward. Plus, those bamboo trees. Let’s dig in.
During the Qing Dynasty, a master swordsman named Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat), who’s own mentor was murdered years before by a woman named Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Cheng) – she seeking to learn the elusive skills of the Wudang – decides to abandon his fighting ways. He asks his long time friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a fierce but elegant female warrior to bring his famed Green Destiny sword to Sir Te (Sihung Lung) in Beijing as a gift and notice of his decision. However, once there, it is stolen by a mysterious and acrobatic thief who we soon learn is connected to Jade Fox. This lures Mu Bai into the city where he not only faces his greatest martial arts challenge but confronts his long-suppressed feelings for Shu Lien, which divides his passion for her and his need for revenge.
Certainly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is first and foremost an action film, but underneath the breathless fights scenes, the film richly explores the dynamic of teacher and student, the consequences of personal revenge and most importantly, sacrifice. This last one is what strikes the deepest, one we learn is crucial and most painful for those committed to pursuing the art of of the sword, choosing a life with no hope for real love. The discipline of the warriors and the magnificent skills each has, while elegant and deadly, also masks a hidden passion, and for Mu Bai and Shu Lien, it is especially so as the film unfolds, their long denial of each other making for an extremely touching journey.
In the story, The Green Destiny sword is the film’s MacGuffin, the thing that the plot seems anchored to, but what we come to discover is, of course, not what it’s truly about. But let’s talk about the sword anyway. Its power is unparalleled, as seen when the young, talented but ultimately unfocused protege of Jade Fox, Jen (Zhang Ziyi) wields it against Shu Lien, destroying every weapon the woman challenges her with. It’s one of the movie’s most inspired moments, revealing that it is skill not blades that eventually win the fight. Beaten but not defeated (spared by Shu Lien’s mercy), Jen escapes into the nearby bamboo forest, quickly pursued by Mu Bai who has witnessed her skills and recognizes that she also has been studying the Wundang way. He is curious and wants to face her.
What transpires is one of cinema’s most astonishing fight scenes, a visually arresting spectacle that has come to define the film entire. High atop the trees, Mu Bai faces the naive Jen, the two skimming above the bamboo like near weightless birds, joining in a graceful dance of swordplay and balance. Mu Bai is clearly the master and only wishes to take the girl as an apprentice, though her misplaced anger and misguided motivations blind her to the opportunity. For us though, it is the mesmerizing movement of the actors as they float among the thick greens of the wispy bamboo. It’s a striking sequence, made all the more so by Lee’s energetic yet haunting direction, where the actors seem to be truly walking atop the high branches.
What he have is one of the more famous uses of “Wire Fu,” a technique combing wire work and Kung Fu seen in martial arts films since the 1970s. Early wire work helped to give characters an extra bit of movement, even a hint of magical realism in representing their mastery of martial arts skills. Here, it shifts to a new level of verticality, lifting the actors into the tree tops. What’s all the more impressive is that it’s really Ziyi and Yun-fat doing the work, the wires digitally removed in post production. Either way, accompanied by Tan Dun‘s ethereal score, the moment almost become transcendental.
I want to talk about color and motion, Lee using the lush green backdrop of the bamboo as a sort of canvas for the two actors, each dressed in flowing, ivory attire. Lee swings his camera about the thin limbs of the trees, giving them a kind of ocean-esque quality, the deep forest green swirling like breaking waves as the combatants slice their way through the warm evergreen hue. It’s evocative of a watercolor painting and creates a lilting, dreaminess to it that helps give the film its fable-like edge. And it’s remarkable how affecting it is. Seriously, think about how this could have all gone wrong, the image of a couple of sword fighters flitting about the tops of trees could easily have looked ridiculous, something surely Lee considered, but assembled as such, is anything but. It’s stirring.
There is this one dramatic moment in the sequence when Mu Bai takes the upper hand and, while clinging to one tree, forces Jen down on another, she looking up at him as he presses toward her. They stop swinging their swords and Lee gently has her gazing up to the master, accepting of his overpowering skill, almost openly inviting a strike as she drifts through the trees. I love the look on Jen’s face as she does this (above image). She seems to recognize his merciful motivation here, and this pause in the fight then allows Lee to insert an image of Jen’s face in extreme closeup, suggesting a shift as she swoops up and he descends into the shadows.
We wonder about her beauty here, naturally, as Lee frames it as such, and there is a sense that this becomes a distraction as Mu Bai swings to the lower limbs, perhaps taken by the young woman’s sudden allure, and yet, it is momentary, replaced quickly as she makes a dive to attack and he easily defends. What we notice is Jen’s arrogance, her belief that possession of the sword makes her strong and her miscalculation in thinking this alone can defeat him, something he disproves quickly after. This then leads her to challenge him in the waters below the canopy, and a moment that will have significance on all characters after, where Mu Bai attempts to shed forever the legacy of his past.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which translates to, in its simplest forms, unnoticeable masters, is a great achievement in the genre, greatly shifting attitudes about Asian films and actors in the United States, opening a lot of doors in the industry to provide more opportunities. More films like it would follow, including my personal favorite, House of Flying Daggers (2004) and while the wire action trend dissipated in favor of more CGI-oriented visual effects, it’s good to revisit these movies and marvel at the artistry and devotion to some of the most beautiful movies ever made.