Home » Ang Lee Reflects on the Challenges Behind ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ – Exclusive Interview

Ang Lee Reflects on the Challenges Behind ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ – Exclusive Interview

by Frankie Gilmore
A graphic of director Ang Lee next to the warrior Yu Shu Lien played by Michelle Yeoh from his Wuxia martial arts film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

“To repress one’s feelings, only makes them stronger.” The achingly beautiful line from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon carries a significant meaning not just within the film itself, but master filmmaker Ang Lee’s entire career. Decorated with two Academy Awards for Best Director, the Taiwanese storyteller is renowned for pictures that have captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences across the globe.

Never staying in one genre for too long, it may be hard to see the surface-level similarities between any two of Ang Lee’s films. Dive beneath the surface, however, and expect to find themes of love, longing, and regret. From the snowy slopes of Brokeback Mountain, where two cowboys (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) pine after a love that can’t be, to the stunning VFX-powered vistas of Life of Pi taking a castaway young man (Dev Patel) and tiger on the oceanic journey of a lifetime. 

Ang lee’s filmography comprises tough exteriors, technological prowess, and high-flying action that gives way to deeply felt, heartbreaking truths. The director is on the search for this truth in every one of his pictures. Largely considered Ang Lee’s most iconic and accomplished work, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon returns for a limited theatrical run in 4k starting February 17th via Sony Picture Classics.

Based on Wuxia author Wang Dulu’s serialized novel of the same name from the early 1940s, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon takes place during the 19th century Qing Dynasty in China and follows the renowned swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) as he gives his 400-year-old sword, Green Destiny, to his forbidden lover Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver for safe keeping in Beijing. When it is stolen, the chase for the legendary blade crosses paths with a governor’s daughter named Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) and the villainous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei).

With the help of Hong Kong martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who also choreographed The Matrix trilogy and Kill Bill, the fight scenes and martial arts sequences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon create the most epic sense of scale. When combined with the heart Ang lee imbues in the plot and its heroes, the end result was something Hollywood simply wasn’t ready for. To this day, Lee’s film remains the highest-grossing non-English-language film in the United States with a total sum of $128 million at the American box office (roughly $218 million today when adjusted for inflation).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received 10 Oscar nominations that year, setting history as the first Mandarin and martial arts movie nominated for Best Picture. Lee’s film would go on to win 4 trophies; Best Foreign Language Film for Taiwan, Best Cinematography for Peter Pau, Best Art Direction for Tim Yip, and Best Original Score for Tan Dun. In celebration of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gracing multiplexes once more, we sat down with Ang Lee himself for an exclusive interview to talk not only about the landmark film, but his career past, present, and future. We look back on his underrated comic-book film Hulk and find out if his upcoming Bruce Lee biopic, starring his real-life son Mason Lee, will utilize a high frame rate like his last two features, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man.

Exclusive Interview with Ang Lee for the re-release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

With Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, what was the biggest challenge that you were presented with while making the film?

Ang Lee: Most of the time I was struggling, thinking this thing didn’t make sense. It was like my childhood dream, accumulated over so many years, and I was the age of 45. Is this my midlife crisis? I wanted to jam everything into one movie. I was in a place where I didn’t know like, back then making that kind of movie in China was a real challenge. I wasn’t prepared for it. Not like today. And I blend so many genre elements. Michelle was an action hero but she has to also do a very dramatic role. Then Chow Yun-Fat was a great dramatic actor.

So all of that is challenging, going to big territories and traveling a lot to shoot these beautiful Chinese landscapes. This was unusual for martial art films because marital art films are very time-consuming. To make our martial arts film, we shot stylish sword fights with people flying. That was something very new to me. So that was a challenge for me and for the crew. So just about everything is challenging, and Michelle hurt her knee in the second week of shooting the martial arts scenes. She was limping the whole movie. 

The legendary warrior Li Mu Bai played by Chow Yun-Fat and a governor's daughter Jen Yu played by Zhang Ziyi engage in a flying sword fight high in the trees of a green forest in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON directed by Ang Lee.
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ courtesy of Sony

Since then, has there been a film of yours that’s proven even more challenging? 

Ang Lee: Well every movie is a challenge. You’re taking a risk because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t plan for it. But I will say Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is by far the most challenging movie I made. I probably won’t take that kind of challenge again, I’m too old for that. It’s physically demanding, emotionally draining, and spiritually confusing – it takes a lot of stamina for that kind of creativity and collaboration on a production. So that was the hardest one.

There are a couple of movies I’ve made since then. One was emotionally very challenging to me, and that was Lust, Caution, another Chinese movie I made. So 7 years after Crouching Tiger, that was very challenging, not so much production-wise because 7 years after Crouching Tiger, Chinese filmmaking got a lot more… the industry got more sophisticated. So the support is a lot better. But just emotionally, on a personal level, it was draining for me. I remember that was very hard, very challenging. And then Life of Pi, of course, was technically very challenging and was an expensive movie. So that’s pretty challenging. Well, Hulk was a big movie, but back then people indulged me to do whatever I wanted, so the support was great. Nothing was as difficult as Crouching Tiger.

Funny enough, this year will be the 20th anniversary of Hulk as well. The reaction to that film seemed to be kind of mixed at the time, which surprised me growing up because I just absolutely adored it. So I’m wondering, looking back at that film how you feel about it now and if you would ever revisit that character or another superhero film?

Ang Lee: I think it would be harder now because back then superhero movies were not a genre yet. Six months before mine was coming out, there was [Sam Raimi’s] Spider-Man. You take the comic books, but you do whatever you want with them. It was not a genre. I decided that I wanted to do like a psychodrama, like a sci-fi/horror film was where my head was at. It was really adventurous. At the time, with movies that had over $100 million budgets, nobody really knew how to control them. Without previews or anything, we just kept going, “Hopefully, this will work.” So it was an indulgence, which I think is harder to happen now.

So [Hulk] is like Crouching Tiger, I did it once and that was that. I’m glad I did those things, but I was not comfortable when the movie came out and got this mixed reaction. It was confusing for the market. I wasn’t happy about that. But I worked certainly very hard. I was very proud of the filmmakers who made the movie with me. And then only years later, I didn’t know there was kind of a subculture. It was like a cult movie, but it wasn’t meant to be that way. It was a big, expensive studio movie. But I’m happy some people like you really like it. I’m happy about that, something very cool about it.

It’s funny, I have friends of mine who I’ve had to convince to watch or rewatch Hulk and they go, “Wait, this is actually great!”

Ang Lee: (Laughs) Justice is served! Thank you.

Yu Shu Lien played by Michelle Yeoh wields a mighty sword in the Wuxia martial arts film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON directed by Ang Lee.
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ courtesy of Sony

With Michelle Yeoh being nominated for Best Actress, I’m wondering if you’ve seen Everything Everywhere All At Once and what your thoughts are on her nomination?

Ang Lee: Yeah! I was one of the pushing hands for her. I’m very proud of it because Crouching Tiger was one of the earliest parts of her career where was doing serious acting and also being an action hero. [Everything Everywhere All At Once] really made her shine, I thought that must be like the peak, the culmination of her career. I’m just so happy for her. She’s one of the most determined people I know, hardworking, soulful, and earnest. We’ve remained great friends. I couldn’t be more happy for what Asian Americans can do these days. It took a while, but they shine each year. So wonderful.

With your upcoming Bruce Lee film that you’re working on with your son, Mason Lee, I’m curious if it will be shot in 120fps like your previous two films?

Ang Lee: I’m not going to with this movie. But I’m going to bring something new to the action and the way to do action. But no, I don’t break the frame rate this time that way. With 120fps you’re really challenging viewers’ habits and the industry because history is built for the 24 frames. So that’s a holistic ecosystem of the movie world. Someday we’ll create something new, but not with this movie. I’m going to break some other rules though, like Bruce Lee would do.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is now playing again in theaters!

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