Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Pushed Practical Effects To Their Limits

The art of moviemaking is an inarguably stressful pursuit, but once in a while, a film comes along that makes it all look easy. Ang Lee's martial arts masterpiece "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is one such film. It's an effortless exploration of themes that were, until that point, overlooked within the context of wuxia ... and for Lee, that was entirely by design. The director worked hard with his team — the famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, cinematographer Peter Pau Tak-hei and long-time collaborator James Schamus — to "stretch" the martial arts genre to its limits.

In spite of the demand for action, Lee was conscious about maintaining emotion throughout. "I still care for drama, character development through action, and aesthetics," he told DGA Quarterly. And true to form, it all shines through without overshadowing any of the action. The unspoken, yet no less palpable, love between Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) is one of just a few threads that drive the film's deceptively simple plot. When we first meet the two warriors, it seems like they might finally have the chance to build a life together — but that possibility is threatened by Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a runaway who steals Mu Bai's mystical sword, Green Destiny.

Their conflict inspired some of the most breathtaking fight sequences to ever be immortalized on film. Lee's commitment to story (and yes, drama) elevated his set pieces into the realm of the fantastic. Still, achieving such heights was not easy by any means, and required some challenging practical effects — especially for the iconic fight sequence between Lee's three main characters.

Wire work for the win

The fight in question finds Shu Lien confronting Jen to retrieve Mu Bai's sword. Though Shu Lien has all the skill necessary to defeat her opponent, Jen still wields the Green Destiny, making them more or less evenly matched. Shu Lien uses an arsenal of weapons against Jen — including, at one point, a massive wooden cudgel — but the Green Destiny destroys each one in turn. The force of the blade even creates sparks when colliding with Shu Lien's weapons, and Lee confirmed that the effect was 100% real. Both weapons were modified using wire and electrical gear to produce sparks when they collided. "They wouldn't allow that in the States," the director mused. "That close to actors? Probably not, let alone movie stars."

Lee was adamant about keeping the stakes high, even during the action scenes. The director asked for "real emotion" on every level, not just from the actors (who performed as many of their own stunts as possible), but their stunt doubles as well. "Usually an actor doesn't do that many stunts, and the stuntman doesn't do that much acting," he told the South China Post. "In this movie, they have to do both."

That standard brought a big risk to production, especially when it came to Jen's fight with Mu Bai at the top of a bamboo thicket. Throughout, both Mu Bai and Jen are airborne, perched on swaying bamboo stalks as if completely weightless. That weightlessness is a popular motif in wuxia flicks, but Lee and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping took the concept "wire-fu" to its limits, making this scene one of the most intense to shoot.

'It's not like Spider-Man'

The bamboo forest fight took two weeks to film and as many months to edit in post-production. Over 300 wires had to be digitally removed, and many more stray leaves were tediously edited out as well. "Most of what we shot in the first three days had to be thrown out," Lee told the Post, "because the actors looked like they were being dangled, not flying."

The stress of "dangling" two of Asia's biggest stars was also a real concern. Chow and Zhang spent those two weeks suspended 60 feet high, each supported by their own construction crane. "You hang Chow Yun-fat up in the air over a valley of bamboo — that's pretty scary," Lee explained to Entertainment Weekly. "After we let him down, after his shot was done, the crane just slides a little bit. I was like, 'Holy s**t. God bless us.'"

Wire work was instrumental in the scenes that followed as well. Jen is eventually defeated by Mu Bai, and he casts the Green Destiny into the river. Jen dives after it in a stunning shot that Lee revealed was superimposed from different locations. Both elements — the sword and Jen herself — were filmed separately and brought together in post. "We actually flew [Zhang] down from 80 feet above," he told the DGA. "It was on a crane, and it was quite scary. Almost head down, just her and wirework."

For Lee, the reliance on practical effects helped "Crouching Tiger" feel grounded and real, even as its characters defied gravity. Having actors and stunt performers truly putting in the work — as opposed to a computer-generated image of an actor — helped create a "human connection" between the film and the audience. "It's not like 'Spider-Man,'" Lee mused. "When you don't rely on a computer image ... you believe people are doing that. With computers, I think psychologically you sit back and enjoy it, instead of sitting on the edge of your seat and worrying."