Why Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Fell Flat in Chinese Theaters
Erich Schwartzel on Ang Lee’s Road to Hollywood
While Western leaders like Rupert Murdoch and Bill Clinton were hoping that the American influence would travel to China, Chinese leaders were hoping that they could export some of their values abroad, too. From its earliest interactions with Hollywood, China had harbored an ambition to ship its culture around the world, just as the U.S. had done throughout the 20th century. The holy grail, even in the 1990s, was a Chinese produced movie that made audiences in both countries swoon.
The best shot after China’s opening-up came courtesy of Ang Lee, who by the late 1990s had made a handful of acclaimed movies for Hollywood studios, including Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. Born in Taiwan in 1954, Lee was the eldest son of parents who had fled the civil war in China. The trauma of the Cultural Revolution threaded through his family; his father’s parents were killed because they were landlords when Mao assumed power. Growing up in Taiwan, Lee had ready access to American movies that his counterparts in mainland China did not. His mother often went to the movies when she was pregnant with Lee, initiating his love of films in the womb, he joked. While his contemporaries in mainland China were being sent to the countryside, Lee watched Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, and Woody Allen, a case study in Woodrow Wilson’s hopes for the form.
Hollywood “told the world what to dream,” Lee told me. “Somehow it just captured that world, established that dream, of an American narrative. It’s fantastic. We all dream and look up to it. That’s how me and most of the world—at least the free world—is dreaming.” In the movies of the Cold War 1960s, America was also “big brother” onscreen, he said, protecting the “little guys” like Taiwan.
Still, the idea of coming to America to direct movies himself was a remote proposition, certainly one his parents didn’t support. When Lee failed Taiwan’s college entrance exams—a particularly ignominious result for the son of two scholars—he enrolled at a local arts academy.
After that, he moved to the U.S. in 1978, entering the theater program at the University of Illinois and then the master’s program at New York University.Ang Lee wanted to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a movie that was by China, for China, while the country was at this turning point.
“When I first came to America, it felt like I was walking onto a set. All those people were really there,” he said. “If you grow up with American movies, you tend to romanticize them, [thinking] that’s how Americans see themselves, beautiful. It’s a romanticized version of themselves, lush and colorful. . . . They’re having fun, very open, just fantastic. You cannot help but idolize them.” After some time in America, he realized the reality was not the filtered version delivered through a script and soft lighting. “The people are not as pretty. They have to go to the bathroom. It’s not like in the movies.”
After years of frustration and some acclaim from screenwriting competitions, Lee directed The Wedding Banquet, a comedy about a gay man who must hide his partner and marry a woman ahead of his Taiwanese parents’ visit, a comedy-of-errors decision that culminates in a giant, traditional wedding banquet for the wrong couple. It was his second feature, and Lee was already lampooning the wedding banquets that were a staple of his culture. It was named best film at the 1993 Berlin International Film Festival and became the most successful movie in Taiwanese history. His father only then started to reconsider his son’s line of work, an indication of the generational resistance to art as a viable career. “I love stirring things up rather than sticking to the Chinese ideal, which is to appeal for calm,” Lee said at the time.
Soon afterward, Lee got his first Hollywood assignment: an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, starring Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson as the novel’s lovelorn sisters. Oscar nominations followed. Next was The Ice Storm, about unsatisfied swingers in 1973 Connecticut. Friends were confused: How was a man who’d grown up in Taiwan making such good movies about patrician England and patrician New England? These movies, and later his masterpiece Brokeback Mountain, he explained, all focus on something his post-Mao generation knew well. “People asked me, ‘How did you do Sense and Sensibility? It’s so British.’ Look, for a repressed Chinese director, repression was easy.”
After The Ice Storm, he would return to Asia for inspiration and adapt the novel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon into a film. It was an updated take on the wuxia film, a classic Chinese genre of martial arts stories. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh star as former martial arts partners and possible lovers battling a mysterious young politician’s daughter and her master, the Jade Fox. The movie’s theatrics were unlike anything seen by most Western audiences. In the middle of dramatic, grounded sword fights, the fighters would leap into the trees, run up walls, and glide in the air through a combination of muscularity and the suspension of gravity. Sony bought the distribution rights.
Hope Boonshaft, just a few years removed from her Tiffany gifts and DC showdown over Seven Years in Tibet, traveled to China for the premiere as part of the Sony delegation. The film was beautiful, she thought, but the more lasting impression came at the after-party, where Triscuits and Cheez Whiz were served. A few weeks later, she was in a theater in Los Angeles’s Century City neighborhood over the 1999 Christmas break when she saw a line forming at the box office. What was everyone seeing? she asked the cashier. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he told her. Boonshaft called her colleagues at Sony. They had a hit. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ended up making $128 million domestically, by far the most ever made by a foreign film in the U.S. The movie received ten Academy Award nominations and won four, including Best Foreign Language Film. Though it was a Chinese coproduction, the submitting country was Taiwan, depriving China of the Oscar it would grow to covet.
Lee wanted to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a movie that was by China, for China, while the country was at this turning point. But though it was embraced around the world, it failed to meet that criterion of the holy grail production, since it was of little interest to audiences in China. There, moviegoers were watching True Lies because it was the kind of action-packed spectacular their own country’s filmmakers couldn’t produce. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which had seemed so novel in America, was old hat to Chinese moviegoers reared on kung fu.
Furthermore, while Chinese citizens were flocking to Hollywood movies, they found that the two storytelling modes could mix like oil and water. Michelle Yeoh, a new discovery in America, was a generation older than younger, hipper actors in China. Lee had made the film to a different rhythm than traditional wuxia movies, opting not to open with a fight scene—the first one comes about fifteen minutes in—and ending on a melancholic note, not a climactic battle. The action scenes, when they did occur, were slower, not head-spinning, and they focused on the actors’ faces so that the movie was suffused with Western-style drama and character, not just stunts. In America, audiences “did not have that cultural burden” of knowing exactly what a wuxia movie should be, Lee said, so they were not constantly comparing it with tropes they knew. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon turned in a disappointing showing at the Chinese box office.
A movie beloved by audiences and authorities in both countries felt like an impossibility. The Chinese authorities could place all the restrictions they wanted on the American movies they had just allowed in, but no set of strictures could completely overrule taste. In the first decade of new American movies in China, Chinese audiences returned to the cinema and wanted to see what the West did best.
From Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy by Erich Schwartzel. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Erich Schwartzel, 2022.