”I could see in his eyes that it was something he had been dreaming about for a long time,” says Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh about her first discussions with Ang Lee. And that offers a clue to what movie directing is all about: dreaming onto celluloid. With Crouching Tiger, Lee has come full circle, back to the action-packed supernatural wuxia epics that enthralled him as a child in Taiwan. To get there, he had to study filmmaking in New York City, work his way through a trilogy of Chinese-American films, tackle Jane Austen with 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, detour into 1970s suburbia in The Ice Storm (1997), then accompany Jewel into the Civil War era in 1999’s Ride With the Devil. About the only thing he didn’t make was a musical (don’t worry — he’s talking one up for a future project).
All along, Lee carried those epics of his youth in his head, amplified and made perfect, and when, in 1994, he read a prewar novel by Chinese author Wang Du Lu, he knew he had found his material. It took some years and the right collaborators: Crouching Tiger would be a lesser film indeed without the contributions of stars Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, and Zhang Ziyi, the broad canvas of Peter Pau’s cinematography, and — especially — the astounding battles created by legendary Hong Kong director-fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping.
And yet, make no mistake, this is an Ang Lee movie all the way, from the strong yet troubled women characters to the tensile elegance of the action to the strains of regret that hover quietly in the background. That it probably took more sweat, angst, and injury to create this mythic jianghu world than it did Jane Austen’s England, 1860s Kansas, or 20th-century Connecticut is just proof of how big Ang Lee is willing to dream.