by John S.
Cinema Jackpots is a series that reviews films with uncertain origins which ultimately became popular smash hits. Everyone loves a good success story. Join us as we explore how these movies caught lightning in a bottle and triumphed.
THE CONTESTANT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
THE ODDS: The Martial Arts movie genre is referred to as “Wuxia Pian” in China and has a rich, mercurial history. In some ways, you could liken Wuxia films to the Western genre here in North America. Both genres unfold in the Old World, but deal with timeless themes of honor, treachery, and love among heroes, villains, and those caught between them. Like the Western, the Wuxia has evolved through the decades and adapted to the tastes of each successive generation of audiences.
Ang Lee, acclaimed Taiwan-born director of Sense & Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet, is a big fan of Wuxia films. In 1999, he found himself in the position of getting ready to helm one. However, this was not to be a run-of-the-mill Wuxia Pian. Budgeted at about $15 million with combined funding from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States, it was undoubtedly a foreign film – but also tailored somewhat to Western Audiences. Columbia Pictures planned to distribute the film in North America. Its title: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Defying easy categorization, the story weaved not one but two star-crossed romances around an action/mystery spine about the theft of a powerful sword known as “The Green Destiny.” Those caught in the subsequent pursuit of the sword include its owner, Li Mu Bai; his longtime friend and secret love, Shu Lien; a mysterious rich girl, Jen; and Lo, the desert warrior who can’t forget Jen. Asian acting royalty Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh were cast as Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien, with then-rising stars Ziyi Zhang and Cheng Chang chosen as Jen and Lo. Cheng Pei-Pei, herself a bit of a Wuxia Pian Queen, also joined the cast as a quietly lethal assassin called the Jade Fox.
There were challenges with making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from the beginning. The four lead characters were meant to speak Mandarin Chinese dialogue, but only one of the actors (Ziyi Zhang) had an accent appropriate enough, necessitating coaching. Filming involved complicated shooting in the Gobi desert where, ironically, the weather proved uncooperative with constant rain. Then there were the reported conflicts between Lee and his fight choregrapher Yuen Wo Ping, who gained fame from his stunning work in the The Matrix.
Also, Yeoh suffered a knee injury from filming an action sequence that required surgery and called for her to film only non-fighting scenes until fully recovered. Supposedly, the challenges of filming left Lee so exhausted and stressed he took up smoking again. In one interview, he said he felt like he was about to have a stroke towards the end of filming. As Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon neared its limited North American debut in December 2000, it remained to be seen whether Lee’s daunting experience making the movie would pay off.
THE GAME: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opened on December 8, 2008, playing on only 16 screens. At the end of opening weekend, the film grossed over $660,000. This was an excellent bow for such a limited release. Future weekends, however, would show whether the movie would gain the momentum it needed to compete against mainstream American holiday films like What Women Want, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Cast Away, and Miss Congeniality.
In the following weeks, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon expanded onto more and more screens and as it did business increased exponentially. Buoyed by glowing reviews and stellar word-of-mouth, the movie steamed through the rest of December and into January 2001. When it finally went into wide release on January 12, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had already taken in over $28 million, almost twice its production budget. It would appear that Ang Lee’s labor of love had paid off with solid success – and was still going.
Then Oscar came a’calling. As Awards Season loomed, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon attracted the attention of various film recognition groups. Sure enough, Lee’s film was blessed with 10 Oscar nominations. At the 73rd Academy Awards on March 25, 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon walked off with the awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score for Dun Tan’s haunting music. There was also similar praise bestowed by the Golden Globes, British Academy of Film and Theatre Arts, and many others.
With these awards coming while the movie was still playing in wide release, business unsurprisingly picked up even more. By the time Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon concluded its North American theatrical run at the end of July 2001, it had taken in just over $128 million at the domestic box office, and $213 million worldwide. To this day, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the highest grossing foreign-language film in the United States.
THE VICTORY: The remarkable success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon introduced many western audiences to the unique pleasures of Wuxia Pian. In the years following this film, similar high-profle Wuxia movies would be released in North America with titles like House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, and Hero. While none of these films quite duplicated the glory of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon they nonetheless injected some welcome diversity to American multiplex offerings. It’s always refreshing to watch another country’s way of telling stories, to see not just the cultural differences but also the universal human similarities.
What’s great about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is how it weaves action, spectacle, and character into an emotionally-full tapestry that is both epic and intimate at the same time. Considering Wuxia Pian are often masculine in nature, it’s also notable how the film essentially pivots around a young woman’s conflict about which direction in life to take – and how that confusion disrupts many other lives before she realizes the right thing to do. Besides Jen who is the heart of the story, Shu Lien and Jade Fox are other notable female characters who represent two opposing paths Jen can follow. Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, and Cheng Pei-Pei are all masterful in these roles.
Of course, Chow Yun Fat and Cheng Chang are also great in their leading men parts and are compelling foils for Zhang, Yeoh, and Pei-Pei. However, as even Ang Lee himself has said, in the end Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon belongs more to its women and their struggles.
NEXT CONTESTANT: Sex, Lies, and Videotape – “Can we make a tape?”
This low-budget surprise hit from 1989 paved the way for the remarkable revitalization that changed the face of independent film in the following decade. An offbeat love triangle with four sides, Sex, Lies, and Videotape put Andie MacDowell on the A-list and won James Spader the Best Actor Award at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. The film itself also won Cannes’ coveted Palme D’Or award – turning first-time director Steven Soderbergh (just 26 at the time) into an overnight sensation.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.