(If it can be difficult to remember what won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s downright mindbending trying to remember everything else it was up against. In An Honor To Be Nominated, I’ll be taking a look back at some of the movies the Oscar didn’t go to and trying to determine if they were robbed, if the Academy got it right, or if they should ever have been nominated in the first place.)
The Contender: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Number of Nominations: 10 - Picture, Director (Ang Lee), Adapted Screenplay (Wang Hui-Ling and James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung), Foreign Language Film, Original Score (Tan Dun), Original Song (“A Love Before Time,” music by Jorge Calandrelli and Tan Dun, lyrics by James Schamus), Art Direction (Tim Yip), Cinematography (Peter Pau), Costume Design (Tim Yip), Film Editing (Tim Squyres)
Number of Wins: 4 (Foreign Language Film, Original Score, Art Direction and Cinematography)
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is frequently (and justifiably) criticized for seeming to favor certain movie genres over others. It is highly unusual to see a broad comedy, a horror flick or a superhero epic compete in any category, much less Best Picture. But there are really only three types of feature film that the Academy treats as completely separate entities, relegated to their own categories: animation, documentaries and foreign language films. These movies are expected to stay within their own little niche groups, competing only against each other, and for the most part, they do. Only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture so far (Beauty And The Beast, Up and Toy Story 3) and no documentaries have ever broken out of their race.
Foreign language films have had slightly better luck but not much. As of 2016, less than 10 non-English-language movies have been up for Best Picture, and that’s including Clint Eastwood’s US-produced, Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima. They’ve competed and occasionally won in other categories, including acting, directing and writing, but Best Picture remains just out of reach for most international productions. Of course, it hardly comes as a surprise that an organization that has struggled with diversity should remain stubbornly America-centric.
In theory, the Best Foreign Language Film category ought to provide a thoughtful alternative to the Best Picture category, a true lineup of the best in international cinema. But the rules in that category are both convoluted and restrictive. For example, each country is required to submit one, and only one, film for nominating consideration. This effectively turns the category into the Olympics of moviemaking. These submissions reflect the prevailing current attitude of each country, so there’s no way that someone like acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, officially banned from filmmaking by his country’s government, is ever going to have one of his movies submitted for Oscar consideration.
Considering how narrow a field the Foreign Language Film category has to select from, it’s a bit disappointing how many foreign-language Best Picture nominees were already represented in that category. This includes the strange case of Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972 and then nominated for four additional awards, including Best Picture, the following year thanks to some of those convoluted rules I mentioned. But by far the most honored foreign-language film in Oscar history is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nominated for 10 Oscars back in 2001, coming in just behind Best Picture winner Gladiator as the most nominated film of the year.
Ang Lee is undeniably one of the most respected filmmakers working today but it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s also one of cinema’s most quietly eclectic and innovative directors. Unlike many international directors, Lee achieved crossover success outside of his home country early on. He received consecutive Best Foreign Language Film nominations for his second and third films, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. He successfully transitioned to Hollywood with Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm but suffered a high-profile setback with the costly western Ride With The Devil (although that too has enjoyed a bit of a re-evaluation since). Returning to Taiwan for his next feature may have seemed like a lateral or even backwards step. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved to be an enormous stride forward in both Lee’s career and for filmmaking in general.
While mainstream Western audiences had never seen anything like Crouching Tiger before, Eastern audiences (as well as hardcore Western movie buffs well-versed in the Hong Kong movie scene) immediately recognized this as a traditional wuxia movie, albeit one with a classier pedigree than usual. Wuxia tales are essentially Chinese martial arts fiction and they’d been part of the Chinese and Hong Kong film industries for about as long as those countries had been making movies. They exploded in popularity in the 1960s and 70s thanks to such producers as the Shaw Brothers and actor/directors like Jimmy Wang. But movies like The One-Armed Swordsman, Master Of The Flying Guillotine and even the acclaimed A Touch Of Zen didn’t really reach Western shores until much later. And when they did, they were often relegated to the drive-in and grindhouse circuit, all but guaranteeing that no one would ever take them seriously.
A truly international coproduction, Crouching Tiger was the first real attempt at reaching both Eastern and Western audiences simultaneously. And despite the fact that nothing in his filmography to date suggested that a martial arts movie would be in his wheelhouse, Ang Lee proved to be the ideal director to bridge that gap. Lee has always been a meticulous filmmaker, paying careful attention to the details of his film’s specific periods, be it contemporary Taiwan, 18th century England or suburban America in the 1970s. Crouching Tiger was his first foray into a more fantastic realm but Lee takes his time and works up to that aspect of the story, grounding it in sets and costumes that feel both authentic and lived-in.
But Lee’s greatest gift as a filmmaker lies in his ability to find the emotional truth that lies beneath scenes of grandly sweeping romance. (He can also reverse that, turning very ordinary gestures into symbols of aching romance, as in Brokeback Mountain). This was evident in Sense And Sensibility, where his humanistic worldview meshed beautifully with Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel to create a film both sardonic and sweet. In Crouching Tiger, he crafts two towering romances with such subtlety that you’re barely aware he’s doing it. Indeed for about half the movie, aristocratic governor’s daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is presented as a rebellious spirit, rejecting her arranged marriage and having secretly trained to be a warrior for years. We don’t learn anything about her clandestine relationship with the desert bandit Dark Cloud (Chen Chang) until we’ve fully started to know her as a strong, independent character in her own right. When that aspect is finally introduced, it doesn’t weaken her in the slightest. She rejects him as well, continuing to forge her own path, right or wrong. Her literal leap of faith that concludes the film is no empty romantic gesture. It’s transcendent because she fought long and hard to reach the top of that mountain. That choice…that wish…is nobody’s to make other than Jen’s alone.
But the truly timeless romance at the heart of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the unrequited love between master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Both warriors have sacrificed their own personal happiness in the name of duty and honor. They are clearly meant for each other, two souls tied together by common history and extraordinary ability, but doomed to remain separate. Given that both move with a grace and agility that defies the laws of physics, it makes perfect sense that their love also exists on a higher plane. Chow is given one of the most yearningly romantic lines in movie history to drive the point home: “I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you.”
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also the first real indicator of Ang Lee’s tremendous technical skill. In recent years, he has proven himself to be every bit as fascinated by and adept with the most cutting-edge filmmaking technologies as James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and George Lucas. But in Lee’s hands, these tools are used much differently, creating indelible images of visual poetry. Even a movie like Hulk, which even the most ardent Ang Lee supporter has to admit is kind of a misfire, looks and feels like no other superhero movie before or since.
Lee’s key collaborator on Crouching Tiger is undeniably the legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen made his name in the 70s and 80s working with such icons as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He had just broken through internationally a year previous, helping to transform the look of movies forever alongside the Wachowskis with The Matrix. Largely thanks to the success of that film, wire fu was not an entirely alien concept to Western audiences when Crouching Tiger debuted. But hardly anyone had used the technique with such style and fluidity prior to this. Lee and Yuen start slowly but steadily build on their use of the effect. The actors genuinely seem to be defying gravity and yet still seem to be accomplishing this feat through their own physical effort. By the time Chow and Zhang take to those vertiginously swaying bamboo trees, it’s clear that this has moved far beyond a simple visual effect and entered the realm of magical realism.
In the wake of Crouching Tiger’s success, a wave of sumptuously filmed, serious-minded wuxia films hit cinemas. Zhang Yimou delved into such wildly colorful efforts as Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and Curse Of The Golden Flower. Chen Kaige produced the middling The Promise and, more recently, Monk Comes Down The Mountain. Wong Kar-wai, who had experimented with the genre early in his career with Ashes Of Time, took a stab at a more contemporary martial arts film with The Grandmaster. Even the Kung Fu Panda franchise owes its existence to the success of Ang Lee’s film.
Surprisingly, it took over a decade for an official sequel to arrive, despite the fact that the movie’s source material is just one in a series of five books. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny debuted theatrically in Hong Kong and China and on Netflix in the rest of the world this past February. (It also received a cursory release on a tiny handful of American IMAX screens.) With choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over as director and only Michelle Yeoh returning from the original cast, Sword Of Destiny is an odd, unsatisfying but not entirely worthless follow-up.
Where Lee struck a perfect balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities, Yuen immediately tips things in favor of the West. The movie was shot in English, not Mandarin, and digital effects are much more of a factor this time out. Sword Of Destiny essentially retells the original movie’s Quest for the Sword plot with less focus, tossing in a quartet of comic relief warriors-for-hire and a pair of would-be romantic relationships that are pale shades of those in the first film. But many of the action sequences are impressive, especially those involving the always-incredible Donnie Yen. If this was just a direct-to-video martial arts flick, you’d probably think it was pretty good. But as a follow-up to a bona fide modern classic, it can’t compete.
When the Oscars were finally handed out on March 25, 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had virtually no chance of winning Best Picture. It had already overcome nearly insurmountable odds just by landing a nomination. And for Ang Lee and everyone involved with the film, the awards were no doubt appreciated but they were kind of beside the point. The real prize was how well audiences around the world responded to the film. Even today, it remains the highest grossing foreign language film ever released in the United States, proving that there are indeed some things that transcend borders and language.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Classics.