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Saturday September 23rd 2023

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo Hu Cang Long) | 2000

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film location: Mount Cangyan, China
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film location: the temple at ‘Mount Wudang’: Mount Cangyan, China | Photograph: wikimedia / Rolfmueller

Ang Lee adheres to the conventions of the genre while adding his own dramatic sensibility to this martial arts movie set in early 19th Century China.

And China is where the film was made, making use of elaborate sets at Hengdian World Studios, in Hengdiang, a town in the mountainous eastern province of Zhejiang.

Stretching over 800 acres, Hengdian is the largest film studio in the world, with13 shooting bases. It was born as recently as 1995 when director Xie Jin needed an epic set for his film The Opium War and approached millionaire Xu Wenrong. The entrepreneur hired 120 construction workers and built the 50-acre set in three months. On the film’s release, Xu’s efficiency in creating authentic sets impressed other directors, including Chen Kaige, who needed a Qin Dynasty setting for The Emperor and the Assassin. Xu duly produced for him a complex of 27 palaces, since when, the studio has hosted filming for Zhang Yimou’s Hero and The City of Golden Armour, Chen Kaige’s The Promise, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, with Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

Hengdian has now become China’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Universal City, with its eight major sets open as theme parks (there’s an entrance fee for each), including a nine-tenths scale reproduction of Beijing’s Forbidden City. The site houses more than ten hotels, gyms, nightclubs, internet bars, tea houses and restaurants.

Hengdiang can be reached by bus from the city of Hangzhou, a couple of hours west of Shanghai by train (or six and a half from Beijing). It's not far from Dongyang, served by Yiwu Airport.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film location: Hongcunzhen Village, China
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film location: Li Mu Bai arrives in the village with the Green Destiny: Hongcunzhen Village, China | Photograph: wikimedia

The real locations are scattered across the vast country, so be prepared for some serious travelling.

The village at which Wudan master Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow), retiring to devote himself to meditation, arrives at the beginning of the film, is Hongcunzhen, 30 miles northwest of Huangshan in Anhui Province, west of Hengdian.

Built 900 years ago, the layout of the village is supposed to resemble the outline of an ox – though you’ll need to exercise your imagination a little. Ponds and water channels flow through nearly every household within the village, to keep the “internal Yang (masculine) water” and assure “eternal prosperity extending to all later generations”.

The village, now a World Heritage Site, is a bus ride away from the popular tourist destination of Huangshan, Yellow Mountain, one day by train ( or a two to three hour flight) from Beijing. You can also reach Huangshan by plane, train or bus from Shanghai. The spectacular conical mountains of Huangshan were one of the inspirations for the appearance of Avatar’s ‘Pandora’. There’s more of Hongcunzhen and its surroundings later in the film.

One set constructed not at Hengdian but at the Beijing Film Studios is the stately home and courtyard where Li Mu Bai hands over his precious 400-year old sword, the Green Destiny, to fellow master (and unrequited love) Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). This set was a last minute contingency, built to allow filming continue after Michelle Yeoh recovered from tearing a knee ligament during one of the film’s stunts.

On her way to deliver the sword to to a close friend of Li in Beijing, Yu meets Jen Yu/Jiao Long (Ziyi Zhang), the niece of the local governor, who yearns to escape her closeted existence for a life of adventure – and the Green Destiny is mysteriously stolen.

Exteriors for the palace complex from which the Green Destiny is stolen were filmed at Chengde Summer Palace, in Hebei Province, northern China. The Mountain Resort in Chengde is a expansive complex of imperial palaces and gardens originally built for the royal families to spend the summer months away from the uncomfortably hot south. Chengde is roughly a five hour train journey (about 140 miles) northeast of Beijing.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film location: Ghost City, Gobi Desert, China
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film location: Lo ‘Dark Cloud’ attacks the caravan: Ghost City, Gobi Desert, China | Photograph: iStockphoto / axz66

The lengthy flashback to Jen’s discovery of a more thrilling existence with outlaw Lo ‘Dark Cloud’ (Chen Chang) was filmed in the Gobi Desert in China’s far northwestern Xinjiaing Province, toward the border with Kazakhstan. The scenery is breathtaking but you’ll need to be an adventurous traveller yourself to see it.

The jagged rock formations rising from the sand are known as Ghost City, 120 square kilometres of wilderness, shaped by winds which the create strange moaning sounds that inspired locals to imagine spirits wandering the desert and gave rise to the name. There is little tourist infrastructure in the area, which is ideal if you want to get away from the crowd and explore more remote natural surroundings.

You can travel to Urumqi, the region’s capital city, which is a couple of days train journey from Beijing, or a four hour flight. You have the option of joining an organised tour from Urumqi itself, or travelling to on Karamay, a little less than 4 hours away by bus (or half an hour by plane). From here there are one- and two-day tours of Ghost City, or you can take one of the regular buses to stay at Uerhe, a small town closer to the desert location.

Once you arrive at Ghost City and buy an entrance ticket, you can walk, take a guided bus tour or – if you’re really adventurous – rent a mountain bike or a four-wheel vehicle.

Other productions which have braved this remote location include Warriors of Heaven and Earth and Seven Swords. You can also visit the area known as Rainbow City, the fantastic multicoloured landscape in which Lo’s cave is hidden.

It’s back to the village Hongcunzhen and its Moon Pool, across the surface of which which Jen delicately trips, followed by Li, as they make their way to the bamboo forest.

The treetop fight between Li and Jen was shot in Anhui Bamboo Forest, the largest of its kind in China, at Mukeng, only a couple of miles east of Hongcunzhen. Apart from the forest itself (Dao Zhu Hai) you can visit the Bamboo Museum (Zhu Bo Yuan) to learn the fascinating history of the cultivation of the world’s tallest grass. To get to Anhui Bamboo Forest, take a bus from Hangzhou to Anhui (or Anji), and a further bus to the forest.

The Wudang style of martial arts (as opposed to Shaolin in the north) takes its name from its historical home, Mount Wudang, but the wuxia warrior temple seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is Cangyan Shan (Cangyan Mountain), 30 miles southwest of Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province, close to the border of Shanxi Province. Shijiazhuang is 180 miles southwest of Beijing, over an hour by train, and Cangyan Shan is then accessible by regular tourist buses from Dongfang Bus Station.

The centre of the stunning complex is the Bridge-Tower Hall, supported by the stone arch spanning a narrow gorge, from which Jen takes her final graceful flight.

If you’re a martial arts aficionado, you can see the real Mount Wudang and its temples in the 2010 revamp of The Karate Kid, with Jackie Chan.