Kung Fu Theater: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

image via Wikipedia

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was an important achievement in Asian cinema.  Released in 2000, first in Hong Kong and Taiwan, then later in the Unites States, it became an unexpected international success, garnering critical acclaim and over 40 awards.

Although an international co-production, it introduced Chinese wuxia films to mainstream western audiences and allowed others, such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, to reach theaters in the US.

It’s one of my favorite movies and a major influence on my work-in-progress, an eastern fantasy novel.

Based on the writing of wuxia author Wang Dulu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tells the story of Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), warriors and friends who have yet to act upon their obvious feelings for each other.

The film opens with Mu Bai retiring from a warrior’s life.  He asks Shu Lien to present his sword–the fabled Green Destiny–to a mutual friend as a gift.  When a thief steals the sword from its new owner, their investigation plunges them into conflict with the governor’s daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), whose brash youth and desire to live her own life complicates matters as they try to protect her family’s reputation.

The trouble deepens when Mu Bai discovers that Jen is protected by the Jade Fox (Chang Pei-pei).  Long ago, the Jade Fox murdered his master and stole the secret of his sect’s fighting-style, passing it on to the governor’s daughter in the years since.

image via Alt Film Guide

Even though I knew little about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the time of its release, I was excited to see it in the theater.  I had become a big wuxia fan by then and seen a number of films on DVD, but had yet to experience one on the big screen.

It did not disappoint.

The film weaves excellent storytelling, interesting characters, and beautiful sets into a tapestry enriched by a soundtrack that perfectly enhances its visual splendor and exhilarating action sequences.

Veteran martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping did excellent work in creating the film’s fight scenes.  In one memorable example, Shu Lien and Jen settle a disagreement in true wuxia style by demonstrating mad kung fu skills.

My only complaints about the film are relatively minor.  The wire work tends to make the characters appear to have little weight, although I appreciate that the actors performed most of their own stunts and that computers were only used to clean up the wires.

I also thought the extended flashback in the middle went on for too long.  Although well-written and well-acted, because flashbacks occur in the past, they can work against the feeling that the story is moving forward.

Complaints aside, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a wonderful piece of film-making, one I proudly draw inspiration from in my own storytelling.

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Do you have a favorite movie that inspires and influences you?  Please share it with us below.

48 thoughts on “Kung Fu Theater: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

  1. lwsapir

    Mike, I can’t believe I haven’t seen this movie. At least, I don’t think I have. It sounds like I’d remember it if I had, though. So I’m putting it on my list of movies to watch!
    As for movies that inspire me…hmmm. Not directly, but I suppose the things that I admire and appreciate in movies are the same things I’d like to do with my own writing. In recent years I really liked the movie “The Brother’s Bloom.” I’m sure I’ve liked others…but they escape me now. I am very excited to see The Hunger Games, but I am a little worried it will disappoint…will report back. 🙂

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      I’ve never seen ‘The Brother’s Bloom’ before. I’ll have to check it out sometime if it ever becomes available for digital rental or streaming on Netflix.

      Need to see Twilight first, though 😉

      And if you ever get around to seeing ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ let me know how you like it.

      1. lwsapir

        I will! I gave up my Netflix subscription so I’m going to have to try to find it elsewhere… wish me luck!

        If you track down the Brother’s Bloom, let me know what you think! 🙂

        1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

          I will both wish you luck and let you know what I think if I ever see ‘The Brother’s Bloom.’

          It’s a shame they don’t have more movies available as digital rentals. I hope that changes soon.

          1. lwsapir

            It seems like it is going to have to, right? I can’t think of the last time I went to a movie rental place – I don’t even use those redbox dvd rental things (because I am and always have been terrible about returning renting movies). Amazon has rentals, right? I’ve not tried those, but have rented from itunes. I think it is just a matter of time…

          2. Mike Schulenberg Post author

            Amazon does offer rentals, but I suspect their selection closely matches what can be found on iTunes. If I can’t stream something from Netflix, but it’s available for digital rental, I prefer iTunes because I have an Apple TV which lets me stream it to my television. I’d have to hook up a computer in order to do the same thing with Amazon.

            But yeah, I don’t doubt that digital media is the future. And then I’ll be able to see Twilight 😉

          3. lwsapir

            ooh! tell me about Apple TV! Do you like it? I have looked at it a couple of times but wasn’t sure… (but who am I kidding? I love Apple.)

          4. Mike Schulenberg Post author

            It looks like they just came out with the 3rd generation one that offers 1080p support. I have a 2nd generation, and it only does 720p, but it still looks good.

            I love mine. It lets you rent iTunes movies and watch it on your TV without having to involve a computer at all. It can stream Netflix, YouTube, and a small selection of specialized options that I never use. If you have a computer with iTunes running on the same network as the Apple TV, you can also stream your library to your TV.

            Support for Amazon streaming video would be awesome, but I’m sure there’s no chance of that. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, so Netflix and iTunes deliver more entertainment than I’ll ever really need. I cancelled my cable TV shortly after I got it.

          5. lwsapir

            I’m SO confused with the TV resolution situation and what constitutes “high res” anymore…
            When are they bringing out hologram TV’s? That can’t be that far in the future. I want my shows projected, life size, into my living room, danggit! Is that too much to ask?

          6. Mike Schulenberg Post author

            Well, both 720p and 1080p are both considered HD, but obviously 1080p is HD’er than 720p. A new Apple TV should still be compatible with a 720p TV, it just wouldn’t look quite as crisp as it could. And that’s assuming you have an HD TV. I didn’t get one myself until several months ago…lol.

            While not hologram, they do have those 3D TV’s now, but I’m not really interested because then you have to have 3D glasses and all that.

          7. lwsapir

            I know, right? Who thought that was a good idea? No way am I going to sit around in my living room wearing 3d glasses.
            I’m holding out for the holograms. I may start picketing.

  2. sheilapierson

    Oh – I loved this movie – everything about it. In fact, I went to the theater twice to see it and then bought a copy as soon as it was released. I never saw myself as the martial arts kind of movie person, but this one drew me in with the music, the characters, the storyline – all worked so perfectly. I really admired Jen. Yes, she was reckless but she was so willing to risk it all…

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      I think that’s part of why this movie is so good–it has a little bit for everybody. Action, intrigue, romance, a little humor.

      And yeah, the soundtrack is great. I have it on CD and listen to it a lot when I’m writing.

      1. sheilapierson

        I need to get the soundtrack… I took some family members with me to see it the second time – they hated the movie – I couldn’t understand how they watched the same thing I did and said they hated it!
        Some people have no appreciation for art…lol

        1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

          Well, no matter how good something is, there are always going to be people with whom it doesn’t resonate. Was the fact that’s a subtitled film the problem, or was it something else?

          1. sheilapierson

            The subtitles was part of it, but they thought it was just weird – I really don’t think they understood the story line at all. They actually said they would never take a movie suggestion from me again 😦 To each his own… Hey, check your email when you get a chance…

          2. Mike Schulenberg Post author

            That sounds a little extreme 😦

            Among the people I know that don’t appreciate the movie that much, the main complaint is they think the wire work is pretty goofy. I try to explain that in wuxia films, kung fu takes on a mystical quality and it’s not really much different from wizards in western fantasy shooting lighting out of their eyes and stuff, but they don’t always get it.

  3. Catherine Johnson

    I love that movie and had forgotten the story line. Those fight scenes especially all the running up walls are the best ever. I’m going to have to watch it again now, thanks for highlighting it. I always feel nostalgic about Tae Kwon-Do when I watch that stuff though. I’ve already made one come back I can’t make two that would be ridiculous. No time for that shennanigans right now. Cheers Mike!

  4. kristylyseng

    I loved this movie. The fight scene between Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh was the best! Loved the drums in the background too.

    Good question about inspirational movies! I would have to go with The Incredibles. That movie definitely influenced and inspired some aspects of my WIP’s current story, I’d also have to add the comic book series Powers by Brian Michael Bendis, and the comic book miniseries Demo by Brian Wood.

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      I must admit I’ve only seen about half of The Incredibles. That’s probably something I should fix sometime, especially since I like superhero stuff.

      Thanks for dropping by, Kristy 🙂

  5. Sara Walpert Foster

    I love watching martial arts on film, especially when there is a story line as well. I loved Crouching Tiger when it came out but had forgotten most of it until I read this post. Then it all came rushing back. Wuxia is a new term for me. I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to use it in my life, if I ever do. What is your WIP about? Does it have potential to become a film? A wuxia one perhaps? HA! I used wuxia in a sentence. I’m so proud.

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      Haha, yes…I like to think my WIP could be made into a wuxia film 🙂 It’s fantasy set in an imaginary world inspired by wuxia films and ancient China, about a princess who must thwart the schemes of an evil sorcerer.

      I’ve finished the first draft, but I still have a lot of work in front of my for the revision. I have a pretty clear idea of what I want it to become, and I’m pretty excited about it.

  6. Tami Clayton

    I saw that movie so long ago so thanks for bringing it back to memory! Great film. I love when a film or a t.v. show (*ahem*) inspires my writing. It can be really energizing. I can’t think of one particular film that has influenced my WIP though I definitely draw from different places. I especially like to watch for how a character’s backstory is woven in through present time dialogue and mannerisms. Trying to get better at capture that in my own story.

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      I know what you mean. Fiction has some pretty good examples of that too. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files comes to mind, but I’ve read a lot of those books fairly recently, so that’s probably why.

  7. Kirsten

    Thanks for the reminder about that fantastic movie. I liked the beauty of the scenery and the love story, with the sinister undercurrent of intrigue. If your novel based on such a great movie I’m sure you’ve got a winner on your hands.
    Movies that influence me would have to start with the LOTR trilogy. Not only did the movies remain mostly true to the books, but the dedication of the actors, director, and props, set designers–the whole crew–to making these films the best they could be raised the bar for fantasy films in the future. Right now I can’t think of even one movie that’s matched them.
    Another would be ‘The Matrix’, especially the first one. When we finished watching it, my husband (who was my boyfriend back then) and I just looked at each other and said, “Wow, we have to see that one again.” The way the sci fi turned the world we live in inside out was mind-blowing.
    The third movie I have to mention is The Crow–the first one starring Brandon Lee. Love, vengeance and rock and roll, in a dark world is something I come back to again and again. This one was the inspiration for my first novel, the one I’m currently revising.
    And now that I’ve written the equivalent of a blog post on your blog post, 😉 I’ll sign off. But thank for a great post! Got me thinking.

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      Well, “based on” makes it sound like I’m trying to replicate the movie more than I actually am, but it’s still a big influence. The official list of influences is actually fairly large.

      Yeah, the Matrix was awesome. My friends had to practically drag me away from my work in order to go see it, and during the beginning I thought the movie was a bit silly. But it became awesome when the big reveal happened.

      Still haven’t seen The Crow, although I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

  8. Ellen Gregory

    Crouching Tiger is one of my favourite movies too. Must be about ready for another viewing! I love the the twists and turns of the story, and the wonderful setting. I can certainly see why you’re inspired by it. As for me, I’m writing more traditional fantasy, so I’ll echo Kristen and cite LOTR as the most awesome movies ever. I definitely find them inspirational. Perhaps I’d better go rewatch them to get myself back in the zone!

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      LOTR is fantastic, both as movies and as a book, and I don’t think anyone can go wrong taking inspiration from it. That reminds me I got it on blu-ray when it came out, and I still need to finish watching it.

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  9. Kim Griffin

    I haven’t seen Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon..yet. After reading your review and watching that impressive fight scene, I’ll be renting it for sure! It must have been amazing to see on the big screen.

    I suspect that I’ve missed quite a few great martial arts movies for the simple fact that ~ when I watched them as a kid, the mouths didn’t match up with the words and it drove me bananas. Obvisously, the movies aren’t made like that anymore so I’ll have to lift my ban!

    A lot of movies have inspired me over the years in different ways, but when you asked that question ~ the first to pop in my head was Pulp Fiction. I like the circular story and the sub-stories and how they all link together. It’s like one giant puzzle.

    Great post!

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      Yeah, they sometimes still offer versions of Chinese movies where they overdub an English audio track, and it never really works. At least with DVD and Blu-Ray, there’s room for multiple audio tracks and we can simply choose. Subtitles for the win 🙂 – even if it does mean I sometimes have to watch a new movie a couple of times before I truly appreciate it.

      Oh yeah, Pulp Fiction…that was a fantastic movie, one I’ve only seen once, surprisingly. I should fix that sometime.


  10. Alina Sayre

    I love this movie! Eastern storylines are usually surprising and refreshing, almost fantastical, because they follow a different pattern than your average Disney movie 🙂

    1. Mike Schulenberg Post author

      Yeah, I generally find them more unpredictable. In Western films, things are almost always going to work out just fine for the main character in the end, but that’s not necessarily a given in Eastern films.

      And there’s something about ancient China that just brings a lot of mystery right out of the box 🙂

  11. Pingback: What Do You Mean, No “In a World?” | Mike Schulenberg

  12. Elizabeth Fais

    I LOVED this movie! Totally inspiring *every time* I watch it. I had flying dreams for weeks after I saw it the first time. The scenery is especially awesome in this film!


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