Designer Tim Yip Paints With a Subtle Brush in the Martial Arts Epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

January 2001--Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has caused unalloyed pleasure and elicited spontaneous applause wherever it's screened: at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2000; as closing night attraction at the New York Film Festival the following October; and in cinemas across Asia. Ang Lee's movie, which top-bills Hong Kong superstars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh and features fight sequences choreographed by Matrix vet Yuen Wo-Ping, was released stateside by Sony Pictures Classics in December, in time for Academy Award consideration. There's no question that the movie is a hit--but what is it exactly? It combines elements of that most popular of Asian movie genres--the martial arts film--with historical drama, romance, and fantasy, and ties it all up in an uncommonly aestheticized package. Can it really satisfy both general audiences and pure action fans?

Tim Yip (known in Asia as Yip Kam Tim), the Hong Kong-based production and costume designer who worked with Lee on both this film and Eat Drink Man Woman, explains, "The idea was to create a certain continuity between traditional swordsman movies and a clearly recognizable real world." This quest for a "real world" started from a historical place, but evolved into something more specifically human and emotional. "At the beginning, Ang Lee allowed just a few modifications [in historical authenticity], and no modern materials. On Eat Drink Man Woman, I learned that he is very demanding on every detail. We were looking for reality, but soon encountered many unpredictable problems. Verisimilitude dampened the atmosphere."

Finally, says Yip, the filmmakers realized that what the project needed was "a feeling of simplicity. After all, Crouching Tiger is not historical; it is more about the conflict of the mind with the world. It needed its own visual language." And that language had to encompass the demands of the action sequences, but not be dominated by them. As director of photography Peter Pau says, "The action is like a dessert to the movie."

Based on a 1920s Wang Du Lu novel, which is itself a synthesis of earlier Chinese literature on the wuxia, or Confucian, warrior class, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's story is a pastiche of cinematic styles that derive from the same tradition. The principal characters are Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a legendary martial artist of the Qing Dynasty whose plans to retire are disrupted by the need to avenge his master's murder; Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), Li Mu Bai's unspoken longtime love and a gifted fighter in her own right; and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), a prominent politician's daughter whose unbridled yet secret embrace of the wuxia ways threatens to bring everyone to grief. Hanging in the balance is the fate of Li Mu Bai's sword, the magically endowed Green Destiny, which is repeatedly stolen and retrieved as the characters chase it across 18th-century China.

The production chased across China, too, from Beijing, to the western desert regions of Xinchiang province, the Taklamakan Plateau near Tibet, the Yellow Mountains of Anhui in the south, the bamboo forests near Han Zhou, and the summer palace of Cheng De in the north. Along the way, there are fight sequences of unusual poetry and dramatic power: Yu Shu Lien feints and kicks and scales walls with a masked opponent, all the while desperately trying to identify her adversary; Li Mu Bai pursues Jen Yu across rooftops, seeming to float against the night sky; and, climactically, the swordmaster faces his young challenger high among the bamboo branches, in a dreamlike and verdantly saturated battle ballet. Characters fly, as in Yuen Wo-Ping's Matrix sequences, but they do so with jaw-dropping grace. (The director is on record as thinking of the film as a kind of musical.) Crouching Tiger partly attempts to return the martial arts form to its Taoist origins, which proffer focused internal energies as a path to transcendence.

To accomplish this, Lee--a Taiwanese action novice best known for intimate family dramas like The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, and The Ice Storm--turned to collaborators experienced in the martial arts genre. As art director and/or costume designer, Yip has worked on such action-oriented projects as John Woo's A Better Tomorrow and Ringo Lam's City on Fire, as well as Clara Law's Temptation of a Monk. And Pau has shot everything from Woo's The Killer to Wes Craven's upcoming Dracula 2000 production.

What Lee did have was a fine eye for detail and a visual concept rooted in Qing Dynasty ink and watercolor paintings, with their delicate tones. "Even for a film like Eat Drink Man Woman, in which characters were in modern costumes, Ang Lee inquired intensively about their fabric, style, and color," says Yip. "He is not overly familiar with design, but he has a sharp insight that can embarrass you at times. To deal with the more unfamiliar Qing Dynasty customs, he consulted Ah Cheng, the president of the Palace Museum and the etiquette specialist from The Last Emperor. He does not stop until he achieves full satisfaction."

What complicated preproduction for everyone was what Lee didn't have until quite late--a final shooting script. "My friends had warned me that this was going to be a difficult task, and upon arrival in Beijing, my worries were more than substantiated," says Yip. "We had to try to unify the style of the whole movie, but when the production design started, we were already short of time. Looking at the scene list and complexity of locations, I almost cried. We had to prepare nearly a thousand costumes, and over a hundred settings. Every detail had to be meticulously explored through at least two sources. There were more than a dozen studio scenes, and locations varied from a huge natural cave to northern Chinese compounds and southern Anhui architecture. Hundreds of people were working day and night, and that was only to create the settings located inside the Beijing Film Studio."

Studio sets included the interior spaces of Yu Shu Lien's security compound, the Beijing compounds of supporting characters like General Yu and Sir Te, a tea house that Jen Yu demolishes with her martial arts skills, the cave hideout of villainess Jade Fox, and many others. Sets constructed outside the studio in Beijing included the old city's Bridge of Heaven, Guang Ning Gate and adjacent streets, market streets of the inner city, and the gate of Governor Yu's compound. "The first thing I did was get a map of old Beijing, to know the background and geography of the city," says Yip.

Yip also traveled around China to help the director choose far-flung locations, and to work out a schedule. Then, to get a handle on the movie's various settings and, he hoped, find a unifying style, the designer began to address its aforementioned visual language, looking for inspiration to Chinese painters, and also to Chinese calligraphy, "which combines strength and softness."

There was the treatment of space, for instance. "I focused on mass and volume of space, light and shadow, fabric and color blocks to emphasize the characters' movements," Yip says. "I made the buildings huge and solid, raw materials without paint or color. I also removed a lot of the clutter, pushing unnecessary props and architectural elements to the background." Mimicking the spatial arrangements of a painter like Ku Kai Tzy, his idea was to place the larger-than-life, somewhat modernist personalities of Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh in the foreground, while layering the background into ever-diminishing planes. "By distorting the distance between characters and the landscape," says Yip, he manages to accord significance to each.

"Qing ink paintings express a decorativeness toward nature that goes well with our characters," the designer continues. "They are all unnatural, and need some worldliness to communicate to the audience." In Yu Shu Lien's secluded Yuan security compound, seen at the beginning and end of the story, for example, Yeoh's flesh-and-blood presence, "together with the impression given by the high-walled, gray-tiled architecture, enriches the depth of contrast between real and unreal," says Yip.

The compound exterior was shot at 400-year-old Anhui buildings that would have been brilliantly painted in red, black, and gold during the Qing Dynasty, adds the designer; his choice was to instead present it as a simple wooden structure. "I used pale wood colors and delicate architecture to provide Yu Shu Lien with a broad and massive space," says Yip. "She appears there in a light shade of brown so we are able to see gentleness in her dignity. To distinguish her from Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu, I also applied various shades of light purple to her. Whenever she enters a space, other colors become relatively heavier, and her refined quality stands out against the empty background."

Color was an even more crucial unifying force than space. This is where the influence of Qing painters like Yung Chiang, Yung Yao, and Wang Shi-tung really came to the fore, overshadowing historical reality. "I removed the typical Qing blue, and diluted all the loud colors," says Yip. "Red was made dark brown, blue became grayish purple, bright green was totally eliminated. What you see looks like aged photos." DP Pau took his cue from Chinese watercolor paintings that are "mild in contrast," and chose film stocks accordingly.

Pau adds that there are shifts within the movie: the first part, which introduces the characters and Green Destiny sword, is desaturated yet on the warm side, and the concluding chapters, which include the wild burst of green in the bamboo forest, are cooler. In between, a flashback to Jen Yu's desert romance with a sexy bandit is shot in comparatively vibrant tones of gold and crimson. Says Yip, "It was a journey of color and space, creating blocks of images, from the grayish yet decorative Beijing, through the clay red of Xinchiang, the original wood color of Anhui, the pure green of the bamboo forest, and the black of Jade Fox's deadly ancient cave."

Almost nowhere is the color saturation what it could be. "The rhythm inside the story must be common to that of modern people," the designer explains. "I wanted to reduce the film's historical aspects in color and detail so that the focus could fall on the characters. Probably because I believe in the expressiveness of black and white, I gave the entire film the impression of monotone; all the characters are mentally isolated, though living in a colorful world--just like modern people."

Most importantly, Yip says, the film's design was guided by the characters and their relationship to their spaces. Li Mu Bai's wardrobe, for example, can be divided into four stages. At first, he wears a long, gray robe of thick, coarse linen, and seems to dissolve into the grayish backgrounds. When his love for Yu Shu Lien comes to the fore in Beijing, he is wearing a shinier, yellowish silk robe; during his night fight with Jade Fox in the same location, he is in dark reflective colors. Finally, in the midst of his love-hate encounter with Jen Yu among the bamboo trees, Li Mu Bai is clad in a fluttering double robe of soft white silk and linen.

In contrast to Li Mu Bai's simple variations, Jen Yu undergoes major changes through the film. "When we first encounter her, she is in Governor Yu's compound, where everything is full of decorations and colors," says Yip. "We subsequently see her as a teenage girl during the robbery in the desert; a nighttime thief; a sexy woman in semi-transparent nightwear; in loud reds at her wedding; and dressed as a young swordsman when she runs away from home." During the desert flashback, Lo, her wild-maned lover, appears in a coarse black robe with accents of red, signifying (along with the saturated setting) Jen Yu's passion. But in her climactic flight with Li Mu Bai through the bamboo, she too is in flowing white. "They are like two weightless flowers," says the designer.

Maybe, but to DP Pau and the rigging crew, they were two far-from-weightless actors who had to captured on film by equipment that was even heavier. On many shots (there were about 150 cuts in the bamboo sequence alone), industrial-strength cranes hauled the wire-suspended actors and cameras or power-pod camera heads up 80 to 100' up above the hilly landscape. "Chow Yun-Fat hadn't been flown that high before, but he got into the swing of things," Pau jokes.

But the DP's job was made much more difficult by the absence of planning. "The first day I was there, I said to the action choreographer, what is the plan of action?" Pau recalls. "He is saying, we don't know. Let's just do it shot by shot. So we went, bit by bit, day by day. We just talked about every shot before we'd do it. It was unlike an American movie, where we would do blocking and storyboards. We worked long days on this sequence--12 days of main unit, and two days of second unit. Ang had never done such a difficult scene before, where everybody was hanging on wires, and every single shot's such a big deal to do." Still, the director came up with his own way of shooting the fight scenes. "He was trying to see everything at human eye level," says Pau. "Nobody shoots eye level in action films--it's low angles and top shots. In our movie, when the camera flies, it's intended to fly at the same level as the person. We were also using so much negative space in the framing, because in Chinese painting, there is always lots of headroom." Overall, the film's camera style is "still as water in drama; in action, move as rabbit."

The six-month Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon production, with a budget of only about $15 million, started in summer 1999 in Xianchiang, where the cast and crew endured scorching temperatures, windstorms, and poor accommodations. It finished just before Christmas in Beijing. Main unit shot for 102 days, with 55 days on second unit. "It was very physically tasking for us," says Pau, and Yip agrees: "Shooting schedules were overwhelming; emergencies, night shifts and being on call 24 hours a day were commonplace. It seemed nobody could arrange a reasonable schedule. When shooting was over and I was finally back home, I felt as though I had been through an intense battle indeed."

To most audiences, the battle has clearly been won. What is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? A spectacularly blooming hybrid, perhaps. Or, in Ang Lee's words, "The film is a dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies...."

Photos: Chan Kam Chuen/Sony Pictures Classics.