Although director Ang Lee usually comports himself with modesty bordering on invisibility, with his new film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he’s become a virtual quipster. For him, at any rate. What was his biggest problem in making his mystical, airborne martial-arts movie? ”We live in a world with gravity.“ Which of the myriad Hong Kong kung fu films most influenced his? ”All of them.“ Where does Crouching Tiger — rooted in Lee‘s teenage Taiwanese diet of Jackie Chan and wuxia pian (warrior films) — fit in his oeuvre? ”It’s Bruce Lee meets Jane Austen.“ How is he dealing with the hype being generated around the film by both distributor Sony Pictures Classics and general word of mouth? ”I‘m just going to float with the wave,“ all the way, some hope, to the Shrine Auditorium.
Lee isn’t as flippant about the motives behind Crouching Tiger, citing the importance martial-arts films played in his cinematic education and the way he has incorporated elements of Peking Opera and Chinese literary tradition into his movie. He also might just be nervous, having made a film that is a radical departure for the director of Ride With the Devil, The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility and the so-called ”father knows best“ trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman). Lee‘s longtime producer and screenwriter James Schamus insists, ”Ang has never made a movie like his last one.“ But there are in fact constants at work in all their films — the rituals and complexity of family life, for one, the Lee view of the American experience for another.
Certainly, one can find a family theme in Crouching Tiger, especially if one considers that the characters played by Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are spiritually contiguous by virtue of the concept of giang hu, which empowers them to vault through the air with the greatest of ease. There’s no American angle to any of this. It‘s Chinese to its bones. And possessed by a reverent irreverence for the conventions of wuxia pian, Crouching Tiger is Lee going home again, albeit on his own terms. In other words, it is an attempt by Lee to pay homage to the films he grew up on in Taiwan by outdoing them — technically and sexually.
”This whole genre is part pulp fiction, part B movies,“ he says. ”When I grew up, there were more stories about martial arts, but then the choreographers took over and made wonders with the action sequences. It remains a B genre, but the most difficult thing is to hit the Hong Kong action standards and add a context that evokes thought and emotion. You know, deliver the cheesy part on one hand and the highbrow part on the other.“
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is hardly just action and cheese. Its predecessors — the swordplay films of Zhang Che and the kung fu dramas of Patrick Tam, Cheng Siu-Tung and Lau Kar-Leung — were never so overripe with erotic subplots. Chow’s master warrior, Li Mu Bai, is in love with his equal, Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), but he‘s also intrigued by Jen Yu (Zhang), the pouty, lethal princess who’s under the tutelage of the homicidal Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), who, in turn, has a thing for Jen herself and is really pissed off because Li‘s master, whom she killed, ”would sleep with me but never teach me.“ It’s like Fred and Ginger. And Sigmund: The chases are foreplay, the fight scenes are sex. And the women usually wind up on top.
”I like strong women,“ Lee says. His filmography proves him out. And, in a relatively obscure 1920s novel by Wang Du-Lu, he has found a story that made the ”emotional connection“ that Lee says he didn‘t have with the Bruce Lee–era movies or the elegiac wuxia pian of King Hu films, work that influenced his technique but not his sensibility. ”The novel is not a popular fantasy novel,“ he says. ”But it had lots of freshness for me. I like the classical Chinese world, but in this novel the women carry the story. It’s very refreshing from the patriarchal society where I came from.“ The entire martial-arts genre represents what the director calls ”the other end of a repressed society,“ and it may also represent the best hope for toppling another kind of tradition. ”It would be great if a Chinese-language film could break into the mainstream here,“ says Lee, while conceding the obstacles. ”In China, Crouching Tiger opened as a blockbuster. Here, it opens in art houses.“