Part 3: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Cultural Purity

This article is the fourth part in the “East Asian Representation in Mainstream American Cinema & Television from 1970-2013” series. 

The success of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in America reflects Hollywood’s Kung Fu craze and created the trope of Asians as action or martial arts stars. The advancement of Asian actors in Hollywood depends mostly upon their ability to master the Kung Fu genre in a way which appeals to a Western audience. Since Bruce Lee’s death in 1973, there have been constant attempts to create a “series of Bruce Lee clones” to regain the global audience. Martial arts stars such as Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh have achieved a small level of success in Hollywood by appearing in action movies, but other Asian stars such as Chow Yun Fat who are not action stars by nature have failed to make a mark. Due to the success of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Hollywood begin viewing Asian films – especially Hong Kong and Chinese films – as “reductive caricature” action style films. The only Asian films that are hugely promoted by studios and have done well in the box office are either action-based or martial arts based.

One of the most popular martial arts films to make a mark in America is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) which grossed well at the box office and won four Academy Awards including Best Foreign Film. However, Crouching Tiger carries a more international identity than it appears. Production of the film involved five different companies in five countries, making it particularly difficult to place the film singularly as a Chinese, Hong Kong, Taiwanese or Hollywood production. Ang Lee himself had been living in America for almost as long as he had lived in Taiwan by the time he started making the film [Klein, 23.] and the film’s main stars – including Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi – originate from different countries and all speak the language with varying accents. Variety magazine went so far as to call it a “cultural chameleon” [Klein, 20.] and the film own’s executive producer and screenwriter James Schamus calls it “an Eastern movie for Western audiences and in some ways a more Western movie for Eastern audiences”. This hybrid nature of the film – not unlike that of Enter The Dragon and many of Jackie Chan’s films – is another way in which filmmakers can explore the concept of cultural purity and challenge the nationalistic ideas of Chineseness with both negative and positive consequences.

A part of what makes Crouching Tiger so successful with a Western audience is its presentation of Asia as a unique and exotic ‘other’, proven correctly by the film’s use of the Western gaze. The film does this masterfully with the music, the setting, the time period and even with the unfamiliar title of the film. There is also an emphasis on the oriental philosophy of enlightenment and inner peace, especially shown through Chow Yun Fat’s character of Li Mu Bai. The film also depicts a romance that is the polar opposite of onscreen western mainstream love affairs; Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien’s feelings for each other are constantly repressed and when addressed, they are discussed in a very indirect manner. On the other end of the spectrum, Zhang Ziyi’s breakout role as the more passionate female character in this film paints her as the “unattainable something” and the author Kwai Cheung Lo compares her rise to stardom to China’s own emergence as seen by the western gaze; she is admired for “her diligence, her versatility, her ability to fascinate the western gaze, but also her ignorance of the west”.

All of these elements are helped by the film’s cinematography which relies heavily upon the positioning of nature as a character of its own. One of the most memorable scenes from the film is Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun Fat’s fight among the bamboos. The shooting of this particular fight sequence plays on the concept of exotic orientalism with its serene and seemingly peaceful feel, the movements of the bamboos, and close up ‘beauty’ shots of Zhang Ziyi’s Asian features. The gaze upon Ziyi is not dissimilar from the one in Memoirs of A Geisha (2005). Scenes such as this reflect on Lee’s decision to heighten China’s landscapes to the point that it becomes a fantasy land, not unlike Peter Jackson’s use of the New Zealand landscape in his The Lord of The Rings trilogy. By Lee’s own admission, the China in Crouching Tiger is far from an authentic one. Rather,   it is “a kind of dream China, a china that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan” [Chan, 7.]. It is impossible not to compare Lee’s inauthentic China to other inauthentic portrayals of Asia by the West. Such a comparison questions the definition of orientalism, especially on whether ‘inauthentic’ Asian-made works like Crouching Tiger can still be guilty of the same charge.

One of the greatest diversions from the genre’s “traditionalist, nationalist ideology of ‘Chineseness’” [Chan, 4.] is Lee’s own comments regarding his work. Lee makes an observation that the film was so successful in Taiwan due to it being “promoted as a big Hollywood movie” and that the Westernised nature of the film is equivalent to modernisation [Chan, 4.]. Lee also states that the “subtext” of the film remains “purely Chinese”, but the audience must use “Western techniques to dissect what I think is hidden in a repressed society” [Chan, 6.]. Lee’s remark concerns – largely – to Zhang Ziyi’s character (Jen), whose character resists patriarchy and best explores the concept of “individual freedom and rights versus a concern with social and communal responsibility” [Chan, 7.].

Likewise, the film’s other conflicts stem from other characters’ ‘hidden dragons’ of their own desires and there begins a struggle with social responsibility. Lee comments on how such “filial piety” has “been holding back Chinese society for many years” and that the realisation of such an issue and its impending destruction are the result of “East meeting West” [Chan. 8.]. Lee summarises it with the explanation of, “You become a Westerner and you betray your parents” [Chan, 8.]. Wth Lee’s critique of his own work and even criticism of Bruce Lee for being too Westernised, questions are raised regarding the nature of orientalism. Ang Lee seems to regard his film more as a truthful understanding and critique of his own culture rather than a traditionalistic piece of ‘Asian’ cinema. Thus, a hybrid and impure cultural identity might have its advantages, especially since it raises the issue of what it truly means to be Asian or represent an Asian essence in a globalised world.

Next: Part Four – “The Dragon Lady, The Warrior Woman, and Asian Femininity”

Previously: Part Two – “The Male Asian Identity in the Post-Bruce Lee Era”


  • Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, ‘The Heroic flux in John Woo’s trans-Pacific passage: from Confucian Brotherhood to American Selfhood’, Hong Kong FIlm, Hollywood and New Global Cinema [New York: Routledge Publication, 2007].
  • Bliss Cua Lim, ‘Generic ghosts: remaking the new Asian Horror Film’, Hong Kong FIlm, Hollywood and New Global Cinema [New York: Routledge Publication, 2007].
  • Christina Klein, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A Diasporic Reading’Cinema Journal, 43.4  (2004).
  • Kenneth Chan, ‘The Global Return of the Wu Xia Plan: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’Cinema Journal, 43.4  (2004).
  • Kwai Cheung Lo, ‘Copies of copies in Hollywood and Hong Kong Cinemas: Rethinking the woman-warrior figures’, Hong Kong FIlm, Hollywood and New Global Cinema [New York: Routledge Publication, 2007].


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