After marking his arrival in Hollywood with a string of English-language films, including Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999), the Taiwanese film director Ang Lee decided to return to his roots for his next picture, which he intended largely for Chinese-language audiences. Ironically, the result–Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–would become by far his biggest hit to date. On February 13, 2001, the film earned 10 Oscar nominations, becoming the first Asian film and only the seventh foreign-language offering to get a nod for Best Picture.
Based on the traditional Chinese martial-arts genre known as wuxia, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon starred Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh as warriors in 19th-century China, during the Qing dynasty. Kept apart by honor, the two yearn for each other even as they become involved with a heated drama surrounding two younger lovers, played by Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. Aside from the touching love story at its center, the film boasted incredibly beautiful scenery, haunting music and–last but by no means least–elaborate battle sequences, with fighters flying through the air and performing other impossibly acrobatic feats. The film’s fight choreography was by Yuen Wo-Ping, who directed the action sequences in the blockbuster hit The Matrix (1999).
In addition to the heaps of critical praise and awards–including a Golden Globe Award for Best Director for Lee, an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film and three more Oscars in technical categories–Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was an unqualified hit at the box office. After first gaining notice on the film festival circuit, it was released in December 2000 on six screens in New York City. Encouraged by its success, the film’s distributor, Sony Picture Classics, widened its release, and it was eventually shown on some 1,200 screens throughout the country. Raking in more than $60 million at the U.S. box office (as well as $100 million worldwide), Crouching Tiger became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history, surpassing Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful to claim the distinction.
Though Lee’s rising star dimmed slightly with the disappointing performance of his first big-budget film, the superhero drama Hulk (2003), he bounced back with his next Hollywood offering, Brokeback Mountain (2005). The film, about two sheep herders who fall in love with each other against the dramatic backdrop of the Wyoming countryside, won Lee the Best Director Oscar; he was the first person of Asian heritage to receive that coveted statuette. Brokeback Mountain, which generated buzz for its frank depiction of homosexuality and repression, was also a front-runner for Best Picture, but it was upset by the ensemble drama Crash in one of the most surprising Oscar results in recent history.