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Until Roma tied its record in 2018, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had tallied the most Oscar nominations ever for a non-English-language film (10). Ang Lee’s romantic action epic earned success critically — winning the best foreign-language film Oscar and Golden Globe in 2001 — and at the box office, garnering more than $213 million worldwide on a $17 million budget, including $128 million in the U.S. as a Sony Pictures Classics release.
The Taiwanese American director, known for Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, brought his feminist outlook and dramatic interest in repression to Chinese martial arts wuxia films, resulting in a blend of delicate psychology and fluid choreography. “It’s about innocence and true emotion: the hidden dragon underneath,” says Lee. “I was trying to make an A movie in a B genre. It’s still the toughest shoot I’ve ever experienced in my life. That it came out like it did, and people responded to it as they have, is amazing.”
Set during the Qing dynasty, the tale centers on a legendary blade called the Green Destiny, a MacGuffin which leads to dazzling, near-balletic battle sequences that frequently involve combatants taking flight. (One character fittingly compares swordplay to calligraphy.) These encounters were orchestrated by fight adviser Yuen Woo-ping, who the previous year had first wowed Western audiences with his work in The Matrix.
Hong Kong action royalty Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh played warriors with long-quashed feelings for each other, while breakout Zhang Ziyi became a global phenomenon — leading to star turns in Memoirs of a Geisha and the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong — as a rebellious aristocratic daughter turned tragic heroine. Her end-of-movie jump from a mountain bridge has long left viewers conflicted. Not Lee. “I think she leaps for freedom, and to put away social obligations,” he explains. “That image made me want to do the film.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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