Getting Smart with Story Structure: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Grow your understanding of screenwriting and visual language with our film breakdown.

 

“Only by letting go can we truly possess what is real.”

– Master Li Mu Bai, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Sony Pictures Classics, 2000

Last month, we kicked off our “Getting Smart with Story Structure” series, inviting you to analyze a film to discover how it works.

A breakdown bares a story’s mechanics. It reveals screenwriting principles you can apply to your own projects, sharpens your command of visual language, and trains you to watch films actively – every film is, after all, a lesson that rewards study.

This month’s lesson is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000’s wuxia-inspired epic that brought Taiwanese director Ang Lee to the attention of American audiences. It’s a unique blend of martial arts, romantic tragedy, and arthouse lyricism that explores the tension between passion and repression in eighteenth century China, with a feminist edge to boot. Made for $17 million, Crouching Tiger went on to gross more than $213 million worldwide, garnering ten Academy Awards nominations and four wins, including Best Foreign Language Film.

We’re breaking down Crouching Tiger in anticipation of its sequel – a blockbuster releasing later this summer, via Netflix and IMAX Theatres in a deal that’s the first of its kind – and because of its unconventional pacing.

Lee worked with a team of Eastern and Western screenwriters to adapt the latter sections of Wang Du Lu’s five-part novel of the same name; the result is a densely-plotted two hours following three protagonists in rotating action and dialogue scenes, with structural surprises along the way.

Check out the trailer:

Break It Down

Set aside roughly 3.5 hours for this month’s breakdown – 2.5 to watch the film and take notes; one to gather your thoughts. Ultimately, we’ll identify three act breaks along with nine structural points:

  • Inciting Incident
  • Pinch Point #1
  • Plot Point #1
  • Obstacle
  • Midpoint
  • False Sense of Security
  • Plot Point #2
  • Climax
  • Denouement

If you’re not sure what these points mean, you might enroll in our online filmmaking course, where we’ll discuss them in depth as a part of your dedicated Screenwriting Module.

Regardless, as Crouching Tiger plays, also keep an eye out for “plants” and “payoffs”, those breadcrumbs that propel the story and shade it with meaning.

Alright, enjoy the show! We’ll see you back here once you’ve watched the film and analyzed your notes for act breaks, key structural points, and plants and payoffs.

From "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" | Sony Pictures Classics, 2000

From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Sony Pictures Classics, 2000

Describe Your Findings

So what did you think?

Personally, I was transported by the film’s breathtaking beauty. Everything, from the lush landscapes to the graceful martial arts sequences orchestrated by legendary fight coordinator Yuen Wo-Ping, inspires a sense of wonder. The sweeping desert, the rooftop pursuits, the bamboo forest bowing in the wind… The film is filled with images and moments I’ll never forget.

Nor will I forget the twenty minute flashback roughly halfway through the film, chronicling Jen’s relationship with the charming bandit Lo “Dark Cloud”. What an unconventional decision! This tangent blurs the line between villain and protagonist, suggesting that – for all of its multi-character loyalty-shaking, life-taking, and heart-breaking plotting – the story pivots around Jen. She is the film’s fulcrum character.

Consequently, I built my breakdown around Jen, although I noted Li Mu Bai’s and Yu Shu Lien’s involvement below the timeline in the chart below. Click through for a high resolution PDF:

FilmBreakdown_CTHD_Still780

How do our breakdowns compare?

Did we locate the First, Second, and Third Acts in roughly the same places? What about key structural points? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

 Michael Koehler, with


Want to dive deep into screenwriting and story structure?

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