Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2001, beating Chicken Run, the three-part TV Dune, X-Men and Frequency in that order. (The only one of those I had previously seen was Chicken Run.) It was also top of the nominations ballot.

It also won the 2001 Nebula for Best Script, beating X-Men again, also O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which I started but could not finish, and is surely only barely genre) and the Buffy episode "The Body" (which I have of course seen, and would rate as one of the best-written Buffy episodes, if emotionally very gruelling). It also won four Oscars, the same as Terminator 2 and Raiders of the Lost Ark, though two less than Star Wars. IMDB users rank it 15th and 42nd on the two systems, which is rather low for a Hugo and Nebula winner.

I normally start these reviews by looking at actors who have been in other Hugo or Nebula or Oscar winners, or in Doctor Who, but in this case there aren't any. (Not even any crossovers with The Last Emperor.) One of the leads is Michelle Yeoh, who I have only recently discovered from Star Trek: Discovery and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

It's a straightforward story in the wuxia tradition, involving a stolen sword and a forbidden love affair. The entire film is in Mandarin (which apparently was not easy for Michelle Yeoh or Chow Yun-Fat, both of whom are much more comfortable in Cantonese), but once I got my subtitles sorted out it was no problem. In terms of the script alone, I think Buffy was robbed of the Nebula; but what makes the film simply superb are the action sequences. Three of these really stood out for me: the early rooftop sequence where Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) pursues the masked Jen Yu / Yu Xialong (Zhang Ziyi), who has just stolen the Green Destiny Sword, across the rooftops:

Later on they confront each other again – an incredible scene, in which the actresses performed all the fighting themselves and the only special effects are that the lines holding them up in the flying scenes have been edited out:

This is immediately followed by the amazing bamboo forest scene where Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) pursues Jen to try and get the sword off her (and avenge her hurt to Shu Lien):

The whole thing looks and sounds fantastic; I have no idea how accurate it's trying to be to any historical period of China (certainly trying less hard than The Last Emperor, or Shang-Chi for that matter) but I don't really care – this is a fully imagined world in which real characters are dealing with both fantasy quests and real-people problems (at which point I should also shout out to the fourth lead, Chang Chen playing bad boy Lo "Dark Cloud" Xiao Hou).

I must say I loved it; as previously noted, I have not seen many films from 2000, but I think this is my favourite. It's going in my top ten Hugo and Nebula winners, maybe just behind Galaxy Quest but ahead of Contact. I don't think we've had a Hugo or Nebula winning film before that was actually about non-white people, certainly none in a language other than English, and there have been very few that put women as centrally as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (just Alien, Aliens and Contact, I think).

The film is based on the fourth book of the five-volume wuxia Crane Iron saga by Wang Dulu. Michelle Yeoh has summarised it and the rest of the series on her own website. Unfortunately it has not been translated into English, so I have not read it, but for the record, the second paragraph of the third chapter is:


This is my 40th Hugo and/or Nebula winning film. (I have been skipping non-cinematic winners of either award.) My definitive and unchallengable ranking follows, with the most recent ten in red – it's been a good run starting with The Princess Bride, with just one real clunker and the other nine in my top 75%, six in my top 50% and four in my top 25%.

40) The Canterville Ghost (Retro Short, 1945)
39) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Retro Short, 1944)
38) Curse of the Cat People (Retro Short, 1945)
37) The Sixth Sense (Nebula, 1999)
36) Heaven Can Wait (Retro Long, 1944)
35) The Incredible Shrinking Man (Outstanding Movie, 1958)
34) A Boy and His Dog (1976)
33) Pinocchio (Retro Short Form, 1941)
32) Destination Moon (Retro, 1951)
31) Slaughterhouse-Five (1973)
30) The War of the Worlds (Retro, 1954)
29) Sleeper (Hugo/Nebula 1974)
28) The Princess Bride (1987)
27) 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
26) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1990)
25) Fantasia (Retro Long Form, 1941)
24) Return of the Jedi (1982)
23) Edward Scissorhands (1990)
22) Bambi (Retro, 1943)
21) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
20) Young Frankenstein (Hugo/Nebula 1975)
19) Soylent Green (Nebula 1973)
18) The Picture of Dorian Gray (Retro, 1946)
17) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
16) The Truman Show (1998)
15) Aliens (1986)
14) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
13) Dr Strangelove (1965)
12) Jurassic Park (1993)
11) A Clockwork Orange (1972)
10) Superman (1978)
9) Contact (1997)
8) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Hugo/Nebula 2001)
Galaxy Quest (Hugo/Nebula 2000)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
5) Blade Runner (1983)
4) Back to the Future (1985)
3) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2) Star Wars (Hugo/Nebula 1978/77)
1) Alien (1979)

Next up is The Fellowship of the Ring.

One thought on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

  1. Very nice!

    This takes me back to when I was there, in the spring of ’97, and as I was with the Oxford Arthurian Society, and we were (ostensibly!) an academic group (though we sang and drank and talked of non-Arthurian nonsense probably more than we talked of Arthur and co. in any academically viable fashion), we went at a special time and were allowed to go right into the central circle, on the assurance that we didn’t touch the stones. (We all did…because one can never trust academics–and as a professional, I can vouch for that!)

    Thank you for bringing back some enjoyable memories!

Comments are closed.