Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Chinese-language film in the wuxia (chivalric and martial arts) style, released in 2000. A China-Hong Kong-Taiwan-United States co-production, the film was directed by Ang Lee and featured an international cast of ethnic Chinese actors, including Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. The movie was based on the fourth novel in a pentalogy, known in China as the Crane-Iron Pentalogy, by Wang Dulu. The martial arts and action sequences were choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping well known for his work in The Matrix and other films.
Made on a mere US$15 million budget, with dialogue in Mandarin, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a surprise international success. It grossed US$128 million in the United States alone, becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history. It has won over 40 awards. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and three other Academy Awards, and was nominated for six other Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film also won three BAFTAs and two Golden Globes, one for "Best Foreign Film" as well as additional nominations for ten BAFTAs including "Best Picture".
The story follows two martial arts warriors, Li Mu-bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh). The two characters are attracted to each other but have abstained from a relationship. Mu-bai, an accomplished Wudang swordsman, asks Shu-lien to take his valuable sword, the Green Destiny, to his friend Sir Te for safekeeping in Beijing. In the meantime, Mu-bai intends to commemorate the death of his master, who was murdered long ago by Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), a woman who sought to learn Wudang. Also searching for Jade Fox is Tsai (Da Ming Wang) an undercover police inspector.
In Beijing, Shu-lien delivers the sword and meets Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of Governor Yu, a Manchu aristocrat. Jen is destined for an arranged marriage, yet yearns for adventure; she becomes fascinated with the warrior Shu-lien.
One night, a masked thief sneaks onto Sir Te's estate and steals the Green Destiny. Tsai, Shu-lien, and others pursue the thief across rooftops, walls, and other obstacles. Shu-lien discovers that the thief is well-versed in the Wudang school of martial arts. The fight is broken off when a mysterious figure shoots a dart at Shu-lien, which she catches just in time.
Mu-bai and Shu-lien trace the theft to Governor Yu's compound and learn that Jade Fox has been posing as Jen's governess for many years to evade the authorities. Jade Fox challenges Inspector Tsai to a showdown, in which Tsai is killed. Mu-bai arrives and easily defeats Jade Fox, but the masked thief reappears and uses Wudang techniques to prevent him from killing her. The thief and Jade Fox escape, and in a confrontation, Jade Fox realizes that Jen (the "thief") has secretly read her Wudang manual and surpassed her in skill. Mu-bai catches the masked Jen attempting to return the Green Destiny, and after defeating her, suggests that she become his apprentice. She refuses and escapes.
The dart that prevented Shu-Lien from capturing Jen came from a man named Lo (Chang Chen), who returns and asks Jen to leave with him. A flashback reveals that Lo is a desert bandit called Dark Cloud who had raided Jen's caravan and stolen her comb. Jen chased after him to get it back; Lo defeated and kidnapped her. However, they eventually fell in love. Lo convinced Jen to return to her family, though not before telling her a legend of a man who jumped off a cliff but did not die. Instead, his wishes came true.
Lo has come to Beijing to persuade Jen not to go through with her arranged marriage. However, Jen refuses to leave with him. Soon after, she is married in an elaborate ceremony. Mu-bai and Shu-lien find Lo and tell him to wait for Jen at Wudang Mountain. The day after her wedding, Jen runs away. She is at a crossroads: should she be a court official's wife, the lover of a desert bandit, an outlaw under Jade Fox, or a martial artist under Li Mu-bai? Headstrong, she rejects the path of Shu-lien and Mu-bai, and starts a fight in a restaurant.
Jen finds Shu-lien, who tells her that Lo is at Wudang Mountain. Jen is outraged, thinking that Shu-lien is setting her up. Shu-lien is angry at Jen's lack of gratitude, and says that she always knew Jen was the thief, but covered it up for the sake of Jen's family. The two women fight, and it becomes clear that Shu-lien has better technique but Jen has the better sword (the Green Destiny). Mu-bai arrives and pursues Jen into the forest. He again offers to train her and she says that she will accept him as her master if he can take the Green Destiny from her in three moves. To Jen's surprise, Mu-bai snatches the sword from her hand in a single movement. When Jen still refuses to become Mu-bai's pupil, he throws the Green Destiny over a waterfall. Jen chases after the sword, and Mu-bai is too shocked to pursue her.
Jen retrieves the sword and is rescued by Jade Fox. She puts Jen into a drugged sleep and leaves her in a cavern. Mu-bai and Shu-lien find her there. Jade Fox suddenly reappears and attacks the others with poisoned needles. Mu-bai blocks all but one needle with his sword. He avenges his master's death by mortally wounding Jade Fox, only to realize that he has been hit with a poisoned needle. With his last breaths, Mu-bai confesses his love for Shu-lien. Shu-lien is heartbroken at his death, and furious with Jen for spoiling her chance at happiness. However, Shu-lien spares Jen's life and instructs her always to remain true to herself.
Jen goes to Wudang Mountain and spends one last night with Lo, who is waiting for her. The next morning, Lo finds Jen standing on a balcony overlooking the edge of the mountain. In an echo of the legend that they spoke about in the desert, she asks him to make a wish. He complies, wishing them to be together, back in the desert, and Jen leaps into the clouds.
Although the movie does not reveal whether Jen dies, the next novel in the Crane Iron Pentalogy, Iron Knight, Silver Vase, begins with Jen and Lo as a couple who have one son.
Unlike most Chinese films, this one was supported by American distributors and therefore received marketing typical of Western films.
The movie was also adapted into a video game.
However, it was less well received in China and Hong Kong, where it was perceived as just another of the countless wuxia films released over the past four decades. Additionally, some Chinese-speaking viewers were bothered by the accents of the leading actors. Neither Chow (a native Cantonese speaker) nor Yeoh (an overseas Chinese born and raised in Malaysia) speaks Mandarin as a mother tongue. All four main actors spoke with different accents: Chow speaks with a Cantonese accent; Yeoh with a Malaysian accent; Chang Chen a Taiwanese accent; and Zhang Ziyi a Beijing accent. Yeoh responded to this complaint in a December 28, 2000 interview with Cinescape. She argued that "My character lived outside of Beijing, and so I didn’t have to do the Beijing accent." When the interviewer, Craig Reid, remarked that "My mother-in-law has this strange Szechuan-Mandarin accent that’s hard for me to understand," Yeoh responded: "Yes, provinces all have their very own strong accents. When we first started the movie, Cheng Pei Pei was going to have her accent, and Chang Zhen was going to have his accent, and this person would have that accent. And in the end nobody could understand what they were saying. Forget about us, even the crew from Beijing thought this was all weird."
The film led to a boost in popularity of Chinese wuxia films in the western world, where they were previously little known, and led to films such as House of Flying Daggers and Hero marketed towards western audiences. The film also provided the breakthrough role for Zhang Ziyi's career, who noted that:
Because of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Hero and Memoirs of a Geisha, a lot of people in the United States have become interested not only in me but in Chinese and Asian actors in general. Because of these movies, maybe there will be more opportunities for Asian actors. It was only my second project, which is why they say it happened so fast for me. The Chinese couldn't understand why overnight I was suddenly famous in America, too. Crouching Tiger didn't do well in China--before we released the movie in theaters there, a pirate version came out on DVD; plus, this kind of big Chinese movie that's so popular in America is not so appreciated in China. A Chinese person is like, "So what? It's just action." Yeah. I began to understand that people loved the movie; I just didn't know how big it was going to become. And then I ended up walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards. Oh, my God! Julia Roberts! Tom Hanks! I walked by all of my idols. That was my first impression of the Oscars, and I still think of them that way. Yes. Tom Hanks said something like, "You're the girl from Crouching Tiger--I love that movie. You did a great job."