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Movie Review & Analysis: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)

Charlene is a Film and Television major. She is a big fan of Disney, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Stranger Things.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Summary

  • 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.

What stood out to me after having watched it

I once chose to do a film analysis on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for my Cinema class. I am glad I did.

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. However, I don’t think the action sequences are as breathtaking as people make them out to be. Sure, the floating is unique, not substituted for other fighting skills, and makes an expression on the freedom of movement. But at the same time, I feel that the floating doesn’t add much value to the film, especially when considering all the other factors that contribute to the film’s message. I’m not Chinese though, so I don’t know if the floating is normal in these types of movies.

Freedom and female empowerment are the main subjects that drive this film

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?

It makes sense that the film would express 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 just how rebellious, fierce, and impulsive she is.

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 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.

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. Despite this, Jen should not have trusted Fox to guide her. Because Jen trusts the wrong person, it makes her unwilling to accept help from others who want to help her regulate her behavior. They recognize that her strength can be used in beneficial ways, not for harm.

Freedom and female empowerment should not come at other people’s harm.

How the color palette evokes certain emotions: mystery, passion, and healing

The meanings of colors are different depending on culture. According to Charlie Svensson’s That’s Mandarin article “The Meaning Of Different Colors In Chinese Culture” and the Chinasage webpage “Color Symbolism in Chinese art,” these are the meanings of colors in Chinese culture:

  • Red - Fire, Life, Fortune, Happiness, Success, Vitality, Long Life, Recognition, Fame, Joy, Celebration
    • Considered to be the luckiest color
    • One of the central colors in Chinese culture
  • Yellow - Earth, Royalty, Imperiality, Power of the throne, Prosperity, The Emperor, Empathy, Warmth, Good Faith
    • One of the central colors in Chinese culture
  • Green - Vegetation, Spring, Future Harvest, Healing, Health, Reinvigoration, Patience, Sensitivity, Harmony, Wealth, Fertility, Purity, Cleanliness, Generative Energy
  • Blue - Growth, Vegetation, Life, Studying
    • Blue tends to have a negative connotation
  • Purple - Grief, Introspection, Love, Strength, Spiritual Awareness
  • White - Metal, Autumn, Funerals, Mourning, Death, Misfortune
    • Socially inappropriate to wear at weddings
  • Black - Water, Darkness, Death, Honor, Authority, Power, Knowledge, Misfortune, Evil, Destruction, Illness, Criminality

The colors I will be focusing on are 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 the colors saturated, or in other words, vivid.

Even the cinematographer of the film, Peter Pau, has described the color palette that he used for the narrative, revealed in a webpage on the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) website.

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.

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I’m not denying Pau’s statements, but I genuinely do not see yellow in the first half of the film. However, I do agree with seeing the colors of moonlight. From my point of view, the first part of the film has blueish 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 her specific reactions to different situations are and what she thinks freedom entails.

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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.

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. As noted before, 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. It does several things. For one, 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. Another thing worth mentioning is that 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.

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 significantly contributes to both the mood and tone

The film uses a combination of low-key and high-key lighting, and even the ASC article referenced before talks about lighting.

…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.

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. 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.

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 fighting 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 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.

The lighting is used in very 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.

In conclusion

Do I think this movie is a masterpiece? No. Do I think it has merit and amazing cinematography? Absolutely.

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