Listening to Things: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon original score by Tan Dun

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
original score composed and conducted by Tan Dun
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, feat. Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was one of a trio of wuxia films I watched repeatedly after college, the other two being Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). Hero is my favorite of the three and is a movie I still watch now and then. I haven’t watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for several years, but it’s one of those movies that sticks in my mind. I saw it in the theater with a friend who was super interested in Chinese language and culture. I remember being thoroughly invested in the story, but the ambiguous ending left me confused. “What happened to Jen at the end?” was the only question I recall having, despite having seen very few international films before this. The music left its mark, too, and though I prefer the score to Hero (also written by Tan Dun), this score settled deep into my brain and stayed there, giving me the first bit of a foundation for the non-Western musical styles I’ve come to enjoy.

I don’t know enough about Chinese music to be able to say things like, “Here is the part where Tan Dun references this historical style or this historical Chinese composer”. I’m sure those references are there. Composers don’t write in a vacuum. But I’m not the one who can tell you where and what they are, nor what they’re referencing.

What I can tell you is that Tan Dun’s score– like any good film score– tells the story of the film through music. It’s not a wan accompaniment in the background, it’s a vital part of the movie. You could turn the dialogue (or subtitles) off and still understand the story’s emotional underpinnings, character traits and relationships, and story beats with just the music to guide you. For example, the song “The Eternal Vow” is a sweeping romantic theme that describes the unresolved romance between Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Yo-Yo Ma is featured on the cello with a haunting theme that is both beautiful and melancholic, and perfectly depicts the longstanding relationship between the fighting masters who have had neither the opportunity nor the courage to speak about their feelings for each other.

There’s plenty of action in the score, too, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is wuxia, which is a particular style of action film. One of its most famous scenes is a fight between Li Mu Bai and Jen (Zhang Ziyi) in the top of a bamboo forest where they seem to be flying from tree to tree. Another famous fight scene is between Jen and Yu Shu Lien, where Jen is using the fabled sword Green Destiny to fight off Yu Shu Lien as she moves from weapon to weapon (fighting expertly with each of them). The music matches both the mood and the intensity of these scenes, pushing ever forward without overdoing it.

Having listened to it three or four times in the past week, I’m remembering again why I enjoyed it so much. It’s a beautiful, layered score that underscores the quiet passions of the characters. It really should be something that’s part of the regular rotation of music that I listen to.

It also prompted me to listen again to the scores for Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which was written by Shigeru Umebayashi. Hero remains my favorite of the lot, though it doesn’t have the same sorts of through-melodies as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This makes sense, given the Roshomon-like nature of Hero, which tells the same story from a series of perspectives. I was less enamored of the music for House of Flying Daggers, which has a different feeling to me somehow. He has written music for The Grandmaster (which I have seen) and the recent video game Ghosts of Tsushima, so perhaps I should listen to a bit more of his work and see what I think of it.

Anyway. Having glanced at the other films that were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score (Chocolat, Gladiator, Malèna, and The Patriot), I’m glad that Tan Dun won. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s score is nuanced, layered, and straight-up gorgeous.

Next week: Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I might have a few things to say about this.

3 thoughts on “Listening to Things: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon original score by Tan Dun

  1. I also loved each of these movies. Curse of the Golden Flower was another I went to the theater to see (brought my mother for that one). I’ve found I’ve enjoyed most all of Yimou Zhang’s films, though of course I’ve yet to see them all. And I agree, the musical scores of most are integral to the overall story. I love when everything comes together, great story, great music, great acting and directing. As a side note, another of his films well worth watching, though not wuxia and in more modern times, is Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. I absolutely loved that one, very touching.

  2. I think I saw Curse of the Golden Flower, but it didn’t stick with me as much as the others. It’s kind of funny- I went to a documentary at the indie theater yesterday, and apparently they did a 4K remastering of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and they’re re-releasing it to select theaters. I haven’t decided if I want to go see it again on the big screen or not.

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