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High class filmmaker Ang Lee wanted to do something different, take a new angle on the martial arts genre; the result is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which deals with real feelings, has a degree of realism in it - and a tragic ending. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Taiwan born Ang Lee grew up with martial arts movies; they had such an impact on his imagination, he now says he only feels like a real filmmaker having finally made a martial arts film. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not only a martial arts movie: it’s much more than that genre tag implies, and one of its key elements is a suppressed romance. Another is the leading roles for women.

Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is a famous and renowned warrior, but he is unable to declare his love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) the woman, another warrior trained in the highest form of martial arts, who herself conceals an inner turmoil and yearning that answers Li Mu Bai’s. When the young princess Jen (Zhang Zi Yi) becomes involved in their world via an ancient sword, symbol of the good and the bad in battles fought, a death-defying adventure begins.

"multi-layered, genre-enhancing project"

Lee, while attracted to the genre for those personal reasons, was not going to be satisfied with anything less than a multi-layered, genre-enhancing project. He found it in Wang Du Lu’s four volume novel, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, published in the early 20th century when Chinese readers pined for the days of Taoist values; the book was the forerunner of a popular cultural movement, the wuxia, that chronicled heroic deeds of martial arts heroes in a time of simple but noble human values.

"It deals with real feelings and there is a degree of realism in it…and it has a tragic ending," says Lee, all of which are unusual elements in a martial arts movie.

"The women are gutsy," he says, "and they make decisions." And they fight as furiously as the men, fly as high, run as fast and focus as tightly. "It’s a fascinating world where anything can happen. There’s a part of me that feels …unless you make martial arts films, you’re not a real filmmaker. It’s pure cinema energy – it’s raw, cool, fun. It’s why you want to be a filmmaker."

And martial arts is more about self discipline and wisdom than about killing: "The Wuxia novels take the premise that you surpass your abilities by practicing martial arts, overcoming obstacles. You keep transcending yourself and fulfil the final achievement…."

"to seek harmony and try to reduce conflict"

Wudan style martial art is more spiritual, whereas the Shaolin style is more violent. "But the essence of Chinese philosophy, in martial arts as in all other, is to seek harmony and try to reduce conflict. Like everybody has a Buddha in himself, unlimited power…which I find very contradictory to western drama, which is to escalate conflict."

James Schamus, one of three writers who worked on the script, reveals some of the complexities involved in adapting an old Chinese novel to the modern screen. "We came to the script originally with a very strong narrative focus - breathless storytelling of a really fun kind. But when the script was translated from English to Chinese, it was clear that there was a lot of the culture that was missing in the original English script - because we weren't focused on how the texture, both verbally in the language, as well as physically in the way the people related to each other, was going to make its way into the movie.

"So there was a very, very big rewrite done on the picture, by Wang Hui Ling, a writer based in Taiwan. And when we translated that back, I was able to ingest an enormous amount of information in detail and feelings, which I never had before. And then we backed into the script to restructure it narratively, to bring it back into a more western narrative form.

The back and forth of these two approaches really accelerated as we got into production. It was literally commuting back and forth to China writing scenes."

The five month shoot included stops at the remote Flaming Mountain of Xinjiang, the Bamboo Forest at Anji, North at Cheng De, to the mysterious peaks of Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), as well as expansive Gobi desert and glacier valleys.

"Everybody in the film is a kind of hidden dragon"

The title, says Lee, is easy to recognise in Chinese, "because Jen has the name for dragon embedded in her name. And Lo, her lover, is the little tiger. Those are very obvious meanings to the Chinese. But the title also suggests that under the societal surface there is something else going on. Everybody in the film is a kind of hidden dragon."

Published: December 14, 2000

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Ang Lee – selected filmography:

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

The Ice Storm (1997)

Ride With the Devil (1999)

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