Fists of tranquility

Get ready to be transported. For American audiences unfamiliar with Hong Kong martial-arts period pieces, or for those who think Hong Kong moviemaking is synonymous with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will carry them places they haven't encountered before. While it conjures up recognizable feelings (love, duty, passion and sacrifice are made meaningful), it provides more rapturous pleasures.

Tailor-made to American film sensibilities, "Crouching Tiger" manages to satisfy Western aesthetic expectations while simultaneously paying homage to old-style martial-arts flicks familiar to Asian, and especially Chinese, audiences. By combining a wistful and romantic storyline with fantasy action achieved through wonderful wirework choreography, the movie has the best of both worlds.

This mythical martial-arts romance waxes nostalgic for an imaginary China, one that was dreamed in the hearts and minds of Chinese, retold in popular literature and put on movie screens in the 1960s and '70s throughout Asia. Taiwanese director Ang Lee, a graduate of New York University's film school who now resides in White Plains, N.Y., says it is "a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan." He elaborates, "My childhood imagination was mainly fueled by the martial-arts movies I grew up with and by the novels of romance and derring-do I read instead of doing my homework."

Lee is referring to the movies in which swordsmen and women, trained in the martial arts, have perfected physical as well as inner discipline. They've developed their chi in order to harness internal energies. Flying, palm-power magic and weightless leaping across vast distances are all in a day's work as these roaming heroes fight for good, seek retribution for a wrong or resolve a situation by taking the side of righteousness. Sound familiar? These knights-errant are not unlike medieval knights or cowboy heroes in Western popular culture -- grounded in fact but existing in the popular and national imagination.

Lee's screenplay (by regular collaborator James Schamus) draws from one volume in a series of the same title by the early-20th-century novelist Wang Dulu. And Lee uses the grand dame of Hong Kong martial-arts action, Ching Pei-pei, who starred in many '60s pictures, as the villain whose wrong must be set right.

The 45-year-old Lee was well-suited to direct a successful crossover movie. He has helmed two of the top-10-grossing foreign-language films in U.S. history, "Eat Drink Man Woman" and "The Wedding Banquet," and he has the well-regarded English-language films "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil" on his resume.

In fact, Lee describes the project as "'Sense and Sensibility' with martial arts." And "Crouching Tiger" shares similar preoccupations as his other films. Lee aficionados will recognize the independent-thinking female characters, the point of view that questions the burden of tradition and social obligation set against individual freedom, as well as Lee's distinctive visual style and meticulous attention to detail.

Here, the director explores how a handful of characters during the late Qing Dynasty (early 19th century) both honor and defy patriarchal Confucian society. Ironically, the weight of tradition hangs heavy in a film that, in both action and sentiment, is far from earthbound. A young woman (Zhang Ziyi) ignores the wishes of her parents and disguises herself as a swordsman to escape an arranged marriage. An older woman, her governess (Cheng Pei-pei), has previously killed her lover because he will not share with her esoteric knowledge of the martial arts. She has stolen his Wudan manual and shared it with her protege, to whom she says, "We'll be our own masters." Meanwhile, a seasoned Wudan master (Chow Yun-fat) comes to believe he has wasted his life because he has sacrificed his love of a woman (Michelle Yeoh) in his search for mastery and harmony. Says Lee: "The culture is very repressed, but there are a lot of hidden dragons in people, and crouching tigers, that from time to time explode." By "dragons" he means the hidden desires some act upon and others don't.

Like his characters, Lee found himself respecting and defying tradition -- in film genre, that is. He drew upon the conventional elements of older martial-arts films: wronged masters who must be avenged, the admirable martial-arts master whose ideals include honor and selfless duty, and the theft of a treasured artifact are all easily recognizable to those familiar with the genre.

But Lee broke ground by adding a new sort of dramatic conflict based on inner emotions. His characters explore love, fear, hope, loss and regret. And the action scenes, rather than being set pieces, function to express emotions and relationships. Lee's dramatic actors were chosen with this in mind -- and of course their willingness to take on martial-arts action (with the help of 15 stunt men).

Chow, often called "the coolest actor in the world," has made more than 70 Hong Kong movies and began building a U.S. fan base with "The Replacement Killers" (1998), in which he reprised the "hit man with heart" role for which filmgoers worldwide love him. He then appeared as a New York cop in "The Corruptor" and starred with Jodie Foster in "Anna and the King." Although known for his martial-arts-with-automatic-weapons parts, Chow is no martial artist. But of the chance to work with Lee, he said: "You have to grab the golden egg and hold it if you have a chance." The actor, who Lee says "had never picked up a sword in his life" before "Crouching Tiger," conveys another of the strong-yet-serene characters for which he is known.

Yeoh burst onto U.S. screens in "Supercop" (1992, with a dubbed version released in 1996) alongside Jackie Chan -- a film in which director Stanley Tong says he paired the "best female action star and the best male action star." The most striking moment in the movie is a motorcycle-riding Yeoh jumping onto a moving train. She next proved to be more than James Bond's match in the hit "Tomorrow Never Dies."

Some U.S. viewers might be surprised at the central role played by female characters in "Crouching Tiger," but women fighters were established as a staple of the genre long ago. In fact, Yeoh, who takes pride in performing her own stunts, says that early in her career she "saw the men having all the fun doing the action sequences, and I wanted to do them, too." She notes that with few exceptions early in her career, she has always been able to play strong female characters.

Making the film became a labor of love and endurance for the director. Lee claims he didn't take one break in eight months, and cast and crew survived rainstorms, sandstorms and at least one serious injury. (Yeoh's torn ligament delayed the film for three months.) Traveling across China, the filmmakers shot from the Gobi Desert and remote Xinjiang in the northwest, to the lush Bamboo Forest at Anji and the waters of south China.

According to screenwriter Schamus, they brought together "almost every conceivable image you could have of China." Location shooting paid off in the spectacular landscapes, which become an integral part of the story. Not only are there sweeping desert vistas and sublime mountain views, but as the bamboo trees sway in the wind, the physical beauty waxes poetical and a little mournful.

Lee turned to renowned Hong Kong action director and choreographer Yuen Wo-ping to devise the action sequences, but don't expect The Matrix, his Hollywood breakthrough movie, or Drunken Master, the flick he directed that helped make Jackie Chan a star. Lee already had a vision of what he wanted. The director and choreographer collaborated, Yuen advising what was physically possible and Lee learning the secrets of wirework and martial-arts dance. Hong Kong has produced the undisputed masters of wireworking who control the hand-held wires to which actors are attached by means of a harness, twisting, turning and pulling them so they appear to perform superhuman feats with split-second timing, coordination, strength and skill.

"Wirework in Hong Kong is done with thinner wires than normal because there was never the capability of erasing them digitally in postproduction," says Yeoh. "Similarly, many stunts are done for real because blue/green screens were not available for early filmmakers." Thanks to a bigger budget, "Crouching Tiger" could use stronger wires and create larger movements in some sequences. Yuen's opening girl fight between Yeoh and the masked Zhang amazes first-timers to the genre. The movie also used hundreds of state-of-the-art computer effects, courtesy of the L.A.-based Manex group.

Most memorable, however, will be the bamboo forest fight, in which Chow and Zhang perform a delicate and powerful balancing act by fighting not just in the forest but atop the tree branches. The actors were suspended more than 40 feet above ground; if you don't believe in the power of movie magic, you will after seeing this scene.

This episode, and actually much of the movie itself, is Lee's homage to one of the greatest martial-arts period-piece filmmakers of the '60s and '70s, King Hu, the only one to win a prize at Cannes, for "A Touch of Zen" (1969). While some of his movies, like "Dragon Gate Inn" (1967), feature interior spaces, others like "Zen" make the most of landscape. It's hard to imagine, but in Lee's movie, the forest scene is quiet and almost peaceful, drenched in a contemplative mood as both actors and branches gently sway in the wind. Call it anestheticized action.

Columbia Pictures always planned for "Crouching Tiger" to transcend the arthouse circuit. A lengthy standing ovation at Cannes last spring and the enthusiastic word-of-mouth that ensued signaled a major film event. "Crouching Tiger" also has the good fortune of being released at a time when U.S. interest in martial-arts movies is growing. However much it is unlike "Romeo Must Die" (starring Jet Li) and "Shanghai Noon" (Jackie Chan), the film follows on their box-office successes.

Selected as Taiwan's entry for this year's best foreign film Oscar competition, "Crouching Tiger" remained in Hong Kong's box-office top 10 for five weeks during its initial Asian run last summer, and in Japan's for three. In France the film made $8 million in four weeks. By early this year, the modest (by Hollywood standards) $15 million production had already turned a profit, grossing $24 million outside the U.S.

Domestic distributor Sony Classics delayed stateside release until after triumphant screenings at the Toronto and New York film festivals. "Crouching Tiger" opened in December so as to qualify for a hoped-for Oscar nomination for best picture. (The nominations will be announced Feb. 13.) But while its availability was initially limited, its per-screen gross after one month ranked No. 1. Scheduled releases in additional cities were moved up; for the week ending Jan. 28, "Crouching Tiger" was No. 6 at the U.S. box office and had grossed $44.4 million, achieving both in only 868 theaters, a number that pales beside the average 2,312 venues of the other top-10 performers. Recent winner of two Golden Globe awards for best director and best foreign film, "Crouching Tiger" almost certainly will become the highest-grossing foreign-language film in domestic box-office history, supplanting "Life Is Beautiful's" $57 million.

A few years ago the Hong Kong film industry was abuzz about which directors and actors might follow John Woo and Chow Yun-fat to Hollywood. Today, speculation revolves around which U.S. film companies will open Hong Kong offices alongside those of Columbia (owned by Sony of Japan), Miramax, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.

Filmmakers in the former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, look toward the day when the People's Republic will consider their films to be domestic productions and thus no longer subject to restrictions limiting entry of foreign films to 20 per year. Meanwhile, U.S. companies hope to use their economic clout in co-ventures with Hong Kong partners who have working relations on the mainland as a first step in cracking the vast potential moviegoing market. Of China, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia managing director Barbara Robinson says, "The film industry has been the most resistant to market reform."

But something more than increased U.S. investment in Asian films is taking place. Crucindo Hung, chairman of Hong Kong's Motion Picture Industry Association, points out that such films are gaining international popularity. According to Hong Kong's Bill Kong, of Edko Films, who mediated the East-West preproduction negotiations for "Crouching Tiger," globalized entertainment makes it "natural that the conglomerates would come in sooner or later."

For some, the film portends a possible future: a Taiwanese director with a U.S. track record, a well-known Hong Kong cast, American and Taiwanese screenwriters, Mainland China locations, and U.S. and Asian financing. Indeed, American audiences are flocking to see a subtitled Hollywood/Hong Kong/China production that has been guaranteed access to People's Republic theaters.

Still, Asian cinema's potential for crossover remains an open question. The absence of names such as Chan, Chow or Yeoh that Western audiences recognize largely explains why Columbia Tri-Star has not released its other recent Hong Kong co-production, director Tsui Hark's "Time and Tide," in the U.S. Limited so far in North America to a Toronto Film Festival screening last year, this action-thriller is reminiscent of the high-octane Hong Kong flicks of the 1980s. (The eclectic Tsui previously butted heads with U.S studios when directing Jean-Claude Van Damme in "Double Team" and "Knock Off.")

Films by directors Kitano Takeshi (Japan), Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong), Oshima Nagisa (Japan) and Edward Yang (Taiwan) have either opened recently in the U.S. or are slated to do so soon. Yet "Crouching Tiger's" success seems unlikely to persuade Hollywood studio executives to give multiplex releases to directors known only in arthouse circles. None can match Lee's track record in the West. Consequently, Kitano's Brother, Wong's "In the Mood for Love," Oshima's "Gohatto" ("Taboo") and Yang's "Yi Yi" ("A One and a Two" ... ) will duplicate the rounds that their previous efforts made.

One indication of whether "Crouching Tiger" is a singular phenomenon in the U.S. will be Hong Kong director Yim Ho's "Pavilion of Women," slated for release next month. Co-produced by Universal, the film is adapted from Pearl S. Buck's novel about an aristocratic Chinese wife who falls in love with an American missionary. Like Lee's film, Pavilion was shot in Mainland China. It also has name recognition in well-known author Buck and lead actor Willem Dafoe. Unlike Lee, however, Yim is largely unknown in the U.S. And unlike Lee's film, "Pavilion" does not have gravity-defying wire-worked martial arts to charm the mainstream.

Of course, "Crouching Tiger's" success is also, in part, the work of Hollywood's marketing machine. Predictably, a backlash against the film has emerged on Asian and martial-arts film Internet sites and e-mail lists. Some people blast the Oscar-driven promotion. Others heap scorn upon American reviewers whose gushing -- "there's never been a movie like this before" -- suggests a lack of familiarity with the genre. Viewing themselves as purists, some fanboyz and girlz fear that Western influences will have negative effects on Asian filmmaking.

Despite such criticism, many martial-arts movie fans are glad to see "Crouching Tiger" in U.S. theaters. Self-professed "kung fu cinemaholic" Kinglin Huie describes it as "a beautiful, beautiful film." And Hong Konger Peter Chan, who directed the Steven Spielberg-produced "Love Letter" in the U.S., believes that "co-productions are Asia's film future, and perhaps the only way it can counterbalance Hollywood."

In the mid-1960s, young, white middle-strata Americans were turned on by blues-based rock by the likes of the Rolling Stones. Through them such youth discovered the roots of black music in Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and others. "Crouching Tiger" offers present-day U.S. moviegoers a similar opportunity to mine Asian, and particularly Hong Kong, kung fu and swordplay cinema, from director King Hu's work 30 years ago to Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" series and Ching Siu-tung's "Swordsman" and "Chinese Ghost Story" trilogies in the last decade.

Although "Crouching Tiger" is in Mandarin with English subtitles, Lee points out it's a big world out there, and American viewers shouldn't let the language difference keep them away. After all, Lee grew up in Taiwan watching Hollywood movies with Chinese subtitles.

Scroll to read more Movie Reviews articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.