- Director: Ang Lee
- Runtime: 120 minutes
- Genres: Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Wuxia
When Li Mu Bai’s Green Destiny sword is stolen, he and Yu Shu Lien encounter a physically-skilled, rebellious young person on the quest for freedom.
Movie Is Striking, But Not Breathtaking
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film I find to be very striking. It has an interesting narrative, and I love the approach that the film takes on its message about freedom.
I was surprised by the action sequences though; I wasn’t expecting them to be gravity-defying and eye-popping. They are fantasy-esque and create the feeling that these characters are larger than life.
Despite this, I don’t think the action scenes are breathtaking. The floating doesn’t add much value to the film, especially when considering all the other factors that contribute to the film’s message.
Even though I don’t think the floating adds a lot of value to the film, I do think that the floating is unique, not substituted for other fighting skills, and makes an expression on the freedom of movement.
Freedom and Female Empowerment
The film raises questions on the concept of freedom: what does it really mean? How can it be obtained? In what ways do gender roles prevent people from freedom?
The film expresses strength and the weight of power. The title of the film is based on a Chinese idiom, and “crouching” and “hiding” are two words that imply secrecy. In context of this film, it means hiding one’s true strength. Jen Yu and Jade Fox‘s strength are originally kept a secret from others. Jen is originally presented as soft before the film reveals how rebellious, fierce, and impulsive she is.
Jen Yu Is Protagonist
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is Jen’s story. Not only is she the protagonist driving the events of the story, but she is the antagonist as well. She does not want to fit into the societal expectations of what a woman should be like, and she wants to be able to freely love who she wants to love.
The beginning of the film even reveals this mindset. Jen finds the thought of freedom to be appealing, talking to Yu Shu Lien about it. Besides, there are several medium close-up and regular close-up shots of Jen within frames, eliciting a sense of confinement and loneliness for her. She wants to be able to make her own decisions; however, she is terribly misguided and hurts others along the way.
Jade Fox Is Mentor Turned Rival
Fox is Jen’s mentor, caregiver, and governess, training Jen until she learns that Jen has secretly surpassed her skill level. Fox is a criminal, but rather a sympathetic one at that. She is not evil for the sake of being evil. She has an understandable motive.
However, Jen should not have trusted Fox. As a result of Jen trusting the wrong person to guide her, she is unwilling to accept help from others who truly want to help her regulate her behavior. They recognize that Jen’s strength can be used in beneficial ways, not for harm. Freedom and female empowerment should not come at other people’s expense.
Color Evokes Emotions
When it comes to the color palette of the film, it mainly uses the colors of red, yellow, green, and blue. The film is mostly in desaturated colors, meaning that the colors are muted and approach a neutral gray. Very rarely are they saturated, or in other words, vivid.
The meanings of colors are different depending on culture. There are two articles, ”The Meaning Of Different Colors In Chinese Culture” and ”Color Symbolism in Chinese art,” that excellently explain the meanings of colors in Chinese culture. I looked at these to gain a deeper understanding of why certain colors are used in the film.
Even the cinematographer of the film, Peter Pau, has described the color palette that he used for the narrative.
For nearly the first half of the film, we created a normal look that was slightly more yellow and less magenta, in conjunction with a mild, cool moonlight.
— Peter Pau
First Half of Film: Moonlight
I agree with seeing the colors of moonlight. The first part of the film has bluish and grayish undertones.
Considering that there is a negative connotation around the color blue in China, while also meaning growth, the blue hues are meant to elicit a sense of mystery and impulsivity surrounding Jen. It furthers the subject of freedom in the film, making the audience wonder what Jen’s specific reactions to different situations are and what she thinks freedom entails.
We then made an abrupt change to a golden red-yellow for a long flashback sequence set in the desert, where we see Jen’s adventures with her lover. The colors are so strong because her memories of the love she has there are the most passionate thing in her life.
— Peter Pau
Desert Flashback: Red/Yellow
In the desert flashback, Jen and Lo fight with each other before eventually falling in love, and their scenes together have yellow and red hues. They even wear red clothing, and part of a color palette in a film is ensuring that the colors in items like walls and clothing match.
Jen and Lo’s scenes together, specifically those that are outside, are more saturated than most of the film. The color red can symbolize fortune, happiness, vitality, and joy. Yellow can symbolize warmth and good faith. With these two colors being central in Chinese culture, and with red considered to be the luckiest color, the two colors emphasize the love story between Jen and Lo.
Jen and Lo Love Story
The colors help present Lo as a trustworthy person, allowing the audience to better understand the type of person that Lo is to Jen. He cares about her, and she learns to care about him. The colors also reveal Jen and Lo’s growing feelings towards each other, allowing the audience to support their relationship and hope that the two have a happy ending.
Although the colors mainly reflect on their relationship, they also serve another purpose: to make Jen a sympathetic character. Without a doubt, Jen is selfish throughout the course of the film. Her being paired up with someone she genuinely wants to be with adds emotional depth to her character and creates this sense of dread for the arranged marriage that Jen’s parents set up.
Finally, we infused the final third of the film with a moody green hue to dramatize the southern part of China, where some of the action takes place within a bamboo forest. The ending is a confusion of green as things become more tragic. [That effect was created] via production design and color timing.
— Peter Pau
Final Third of Film: Moody Green
It is true that the final parts of the film use green. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of trees around the characters. Even though the ending is more tragic with Jen not being able to save Li Mu Bai in time and feeling guilty about it, it still conveys a sense of freshness.
Sometime before he dies, she wants to create an antidote for him, realizing the harm that her actions have caused. Part of improvement is recognition of the issue, but Jen only learns this a little too late.
The film ends with Jen floating away from the bridge she was on; this scene also uses green hues. The meaning of Jen doing this is very ambiguous and up to viewer interpretation. In my perspective though, the green hues imply that she wants to have a new start to her life. She wants to be content with herself.
Lighting Sets Mood and Tone
The lighting is used in effective ways; it is not extreme. It helps establish the tone and mood for the film, showing female beauty and the complexity of Jen as a character.
There are high levels of illumination on the characters at various points in the film with very gentle and hardly visible shadows—most prominently at the beginning of the film.
High-key lighting involves soft lighting, minimal shadows, and low contrast. It is often used to evoke a sense of happiness or lightheartedness; however, this is not the case here since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does not have a happy mood.
Soft Lighting = Female Empowerment
Instead, Pau uses it to emphasize beauty. This makes sense—soft light tends to be more flattering to viewers and makes scenes easier to watch. Female empowerment is an important component of this film, promoting the independence of these women and criticizing traditional gender roles.
The women are not made to be subservient to men. They have their own features that make them stand out, and the soft light gently surrounding these characters helps achieve that.
…to get the softest light possible, particularly in scenes between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, because their beauty was so important to the drama in many scenes.
— Peter Pau
Low-key lighting is more common in action, crime, horror, and thriller films, or in other words, films that have a serious mood. They include a lot of hard light, darks, shadows, and high contrast.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fits the definition of an action film: strong heroes go through a story with physical fights and frantic chases. It is serious as well because the actions of Jen and Fox are regarded with a lot of gravity.
Low-Key Lighting Common in Action Films
Low-key lighting is often used to create dramatic or mysterious effects in films, and this applies for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is effective for the intense scenes in this film as they express a sense of mystery, similar to what the colors of moonlight convey.
Not only that, but the scenes with Jen that have low-key lighting demonstrate that her so-called independent actions will end up having unfavorable outcomes.
I don’t think this movie is a masterpiece, but it has merit, amazing cinematography, and wonderful visuals. It excellently captures the inner turmoil of each of the characters, and there are plenty of exciting scenes to be enjoyed.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Find out where to stream Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon online.
- Director of photography Peter Pau, HKSC lends a soaring, poetic grandeur to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a mythic and wildly romantic martial-arts epic.: Read more about Peter Pau’s approach when it came to the cinematography of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The quotes that appear in this review and analysis come from this article.
© 2022 Charlene H