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Ang Lee wasn’t always such a respected filmmaker. 

It’s hard to imagine, but in the late 90s, Ang Lee’s name was not synonymous with heady masterpieces or stunning visual work. His biggest hit was The Ice Storm, a small drama that set him up to make bigger dramas. 

No one in Hollywood understood why he was making a Chinese-language action romance based on a book for his next movie. People didn’t know what to expect. They thought he was crazy to take what was seen as a B-movie after such acclaim. 

And they were very wrong.  

While speaking to EW recently, Lee talked about how people tried to talk him out of making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

“I bent [the genre],” the filmmaker said. “I think that’s the real difficulty. Like, ‘You want to fight… or you want to do drama?’ I wanted it all. Because of that, I didn’t realize I was upgrading a B-movie to A. You’re supposed to go crazy, go wild. I was honing something really restricted and refined.”

It can be frustrating for a town not to see your vision. For Lee, it was that they underestimated what a martial arts movie could be. And the depth that Lee would bring. And the depth that was already there. 

“Chinese martial arts are not just martial arts,” Lee said. “It’s a way of life, it’s philosophy, it’s how humans relate to nature. I really wanted to project that into the drama and everything in the movie.”

I found this movie to be one of the most gorgeous to look at, but also one that really swept away my emotions. There was a fulfillment of converging storylines and characters that took us on a romantic and tragic journey across an ancient dynasty. 

Lee hoped that in making the movie, his crew would understand what he was trying to do, as well. But at times, there was even this tension with what Lee was doing on set. The fight scenes were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, who was fresh off The Matrix. When it came time to rehearse Lee’s more emotional versions, Yuen was used to doing things a bit differently.

“When people fight, I treat it like a conversation, like a verbal drama,” Lee said. “There’s a relationship, a development going on, there’s conflict. So [Yuen] could not just design the most fascinating fights, which is what he does. We all had to sacrifice a lot. I had to sacrifice drama sometimes, and he had to sacrifice beautiful action for the dramatic effect.”

But all of filmmaking is collaboration.

Finally, Lee added, “I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do. It turns out, I get to do a little bit of what I want to do, but mostly [Yuen] does the design, and I choose whatever fits the movie… I would say, ‘I like this, I don’t like that, this doesn’t fit the character.’ Usually, they don’t care. What looks good, they do it. So his hands were kind of tied too.”

In the end, we got a masterpiece. One that people never thought would be possible given the subject matter. 

There were compromises and hurdles, but for this eventual Academy Award winner, everyone came together, compromised, took some risks, and delivered something special. 

Let us know what you think in the comments.     

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