For as long as I have loved movies, I have loved Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. From the very first time I laid eyes on it, I revelled in the stunning wuxia action sequences, and I continue to be enthralled by its exhilarating energies every time I revisit the film. Over time, however, my relationship with this classic has evolved into something beyond the appreciation of spectacle.
Amidst all the exquisite sword fights, elegant fight moves, and flights of fancy is a deep emotional core to each of its principal characters. The legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) exudes so much vulnerability and regret under the surface of his honourable, dutiful image. Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the stubborn young renegade who causes chaos with her actions, carries such poignancy in her desire to break free from patriarchal conventions. And, of course, there’s Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was my first exposure to the legendary Yeoh. Here, she brings the force of her martial arts capabilities, funnelled through her unique screen presence that brings such dignity, warmth, and humility even as Yu Shu Lien performs such awe-inspiring acts.
Yeoh’s performance is in many ways the anchor, the balancing force of the film between Chow’s Mu Bai and Zhang’s Jen. Like the former, she adheres to a warrior’s code of honour, both steadfast to a fault in their loyalty. As a woman, she also has the perspective to sympathise with Jen’s predicament, while also being frustrated with her actions, in turn making Shu Lien such a fascinating character, a mentor who also has lessons to learn herself.
Though she is a great warrior, we also find such a deep-rooted human connection to her — and therein lies the power of Yeoh’s work. She brings such an earthly knowingness to Shu Lien that grounds the spectacle of the beautiful cinematography, score, and choreography so well. When we watch her soar through the air and trade blows with a mysterious bandit for the first time, it is both awe-inspiring and utterly believable; and the same goes for Mu Bai. The key to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s success is how readily you accept Mu Bai and Shu Lien as these legendary warriors as soon as they step on screen.
As Shu Lien, Yeoh is so expressive and graceful with her movements, it makes the less graceful moments all the more striking, such as the hilarious bit in the iconic fight between Shu Lien and Jen where she struggles to pick up a particularly heavy weapon. Yeoh can move from the exhilarating excitement of a brilliantly choreographed action sequence to a comedic beat with such ease, demonstrative of her dynamic screen presence. What adds to this particular sequence is how Shu Lien and Jen trade blows with fiery dedication, but at the same time, it’s clear Shu Lien doesn’t want to hurt her, instead wanting to guide her away from the wrong path. This is also evident away from the heat of combat.
Shu Lien as a character is reserved, yet far from stoic or emotionless. There is such affection and genuine care in Yeoh’s line deliveries as Shu Lien teaches Jen about the legendary Green Destiny sword. She listens sympathetically to Jen’s anxieties about being wed into a marriage of convenience, yet she is incisive in her no-nonsense investigation into Jen stealing the sword. Under the guise of pleasantries over tea with Jen’s family, Shu Lien tests the cracks in Jen’s facade and with a few choice words and a piercing glare, she speaks volumes. Shu Lien is compassionate, but also suffers no fools, and Yeoh shifts between these two sides of the coin in her scenes with Zhang seamlessly.
Then there are Shu Lien’s scenes with Mu Bai, where the two repress their feelings for one another under a sense of duty and loyalty to Shu Lien’s deceased fiancé who was Mu Bai’s best friend. As great as it is to watch Yeoh and Chow engage in the boundless energy of the film’s grand spectacle, some of the most memorable scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are the quiet conversations between Mu Bai and Shu Lien. A different kind of physicality is exuded in both performances as the two actors interact with dignified, “proper” manners that slowly fall away as Mu Bai recalls their shared history with such understated passion, and Shu Lien intently listens on. So much is said in Chow’s delivery and Yeoh’s eyes in these scenes as the passion beneath their guarded fronts bristles, leading to the unforgettable final scene of them together where they realize the foolishness of holding back their feelings for so long, and they finally give in to their passion.
Rewatching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon recently and coming to this scene, I was struck by the emotional parallels I found between it and a key sequence in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Waymond’s (Ke Huy Quan) delivery of his now classic line to Yeoh’s Evelyn,“In another life, I would have been happy doing laundry and taxes with you,” is very much in the spirit of Mu Bai’s “I would rather be a ghost, drifting by your side as a condemned soul.” These poetic lines, both spoken towards Michelle Yeoh, have such a cathartic impact on me that I began to reflect on why I have such a strong connection to both films.
It is testament to the power of Yeoh’s work that she earns the emotional weight of these lines and the devotion of Mu Bai and Waymond through her portrayals of Shu Lien and Evelyn Wang. Like Evelyn, who eventually takes in Waymond’s invocation of love as inspiration, Shu Lien also carries the power of Mu Bai’s final words to the end.
Shu Lien regains her composure and restrains herself from taking out her grief on Jen, whose actions inadvertently led to the film’s tragedy. Instead, she passes on her final advice to Jen, that whatever path she may take, to “be true to yourself” and not at the service of others. This moment in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of the crowning achievements of Yeoh’s storied career. So much of her brilliance as a performer is encapsulated through her line delivery. Yeoh brings the power of Shu Lien’s words of wisdom, driven through such strength and compassion, while her eyes reflect Shu Lien’s devastating personal loss.
It’s extraordinary how Michelle Yeoh, the queen of action cinema, can find just as much power in her reactions. She remains as compelling when the camera holds onto her face as when it captures the fluidity of her body movements. Her appeal as a performer goes beyond being a heroic badass, as she finds such grounded humanity to these high-flying, high-concept stories. And that’s why she, Shu Lien, Evelyn Wang, and all her varied roles, are all my heroes.