If I didn’t know better, I‘d say Ang Lee made his latest film expressly to reduce the marketing department at Sony Pictures Classics to gibbering wrecks. Behold Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — a martial-arts movie with Mandarin dialogue, no kung fu, and women taking the lion’s share of fight scenes. What‘s more, aside from one disposable unfortunate who winds up with what looks like the latest Cuisinart attachment embedded in his skull, there’s little bloodshed, unless you count a lot of exquisitely staged swordplay by warriors floating (literally) through breathtaking Chinese countryside. I mean, who in hell is going to see a martial-arts story with action by Martha Graham, and romance by Jane Austen with a touch of Douglas Sirk?
With any luck, just about anyone who isn‘t looking for John Woo. Crouching Tiger, a real beauty, has the sprawling canvas of an epic and the emotional heat of classical melodrama. Like so many Asian filmmakers of his generation, Lee, who was raised on a diet of Hong Kong action pictures, classical Taoist culture and Westerns, mixes and matches with blithe unconcern for cultural or geographical frontiers. Though it’s based on a novel (by Chinese writer Wang Du-Lu) set in the formal warrior culture of 17th-century China, Crouching Tiger boasts a score that features cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Mandarin pop queen Coco Lee. The subtitled screenplay, co-written by longtime Lee collaborator James Schamus (The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil) with Taiwanese writers Wang Hui-Ling and Tsai Kuo-Jung, leans toward modern vernacular — a little too enthusiastically. Do we really need to hear pre-industrial Chinese folk complain that “The help can‘t keep their hands to themselves,” or order tavern food with “a little starch, but keep the sauce light”?
Still, Crouching Tiger has none of the frantic kinesis of, say, a Wong Kar-Wai movie. With the philosophically inclined Lee, action is never just action. (Ride With the Devil, his most recent picture, may be the chattiest Western ever made.) For Lee, switching genres opens up new ways of exploring the eternal struggle between mind and heart, between discipline and desire. The conflicts that afflict four warriors in Crouching Tiger hark back to Sense and Sensibility and to Lee’s lovely early film Pushing Hands, which also explored the connection between ancient theory and practice (in this case, tai chi) and the inner turmoil of its practitioner, an old man adrift in a new world. Depending on your priorities, Crouching Tiger is either about a magic sword changing hands with spectacular technique, or it‘s about the standoff between desire and restraint among the sword’s handlers. Lee‘s private little joke is that Hong Kong action superstar Chow Yun-Fat plays a most pacific-minded martial artist named Li Mu Bai, who, weary of the corrupt Hobbesian gangsterism of the Giang Hu underworld, means to hang up his sword and seek inner enlightenment. So he asks his old friend Shu Lien (doe-eyed Michelle Yeoh, who ran rings around Pierce Brosnan in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies) to deliver the sword, known as the Green Destiny, to a trusted old friend of her dead father. It’s here that Shu Lien runs smack into a pile of subplot, in the form of Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a smoldering, headstrong aristocratic maiden who‘s chafing under a sinister governess (Cheng Pei-Pei) and the prospect of marriage to a suitably moneyed noble, and who provides an excuse for a sexy Western-style flashback to headier days with a desert bandit lover, Lo (Chang Chen).
The theft of the sword by a mystery assailant sets off a chain of uneasy, shifting alliances among the two would-be couples — one older and all sense, the other young and bursting with sensibility. As happens so often in an Ang Lee film, it’s women who occupy the movie‘s moral and intellectual heart: Jen, so besotted with warrior hardware that she’s indifferent to the honor code incumbent on those who possess it, has much to learn from Shu Lien, who‘s seen enough of warrior life to know that freedom, especially for a woman in a culture that demands female passivity, exacts a heavy price — and embraces it anyway. Their relationship is an intelligent enough rehash of Lee’s Jane Austen flick, but what will set the spirits of at least half the date audience soaring is that the movie‘s fight scenes also belong to the women. Choreographed by the master of martial-arts “wirework,” Yuen a Wo-Ping (who’s also responsible for Keanu Reeves walking on the ceiling in The Matrix), these fabulous set pieces, however wimpy by Jackie Chan standards, have their combatants walking on water, sailing between rooftops and dangling from the most delicate of tree branches. It‘s like watching dance, and it’s beautiful, and when, in the last half-hour, the movie drops the smug, pseudo-hip jokiness that mars the script and settles into pure romantic tragedy, you‘re along, body and soul, for the ride. As Shu Lien keeps vigil with a mortally ill Li Mu Bai, the two unburden their hearts at last. Their loss will become Jen and Lo’s gain, though not necessarily in the way you might think. For Jen has at last opened her heart to the working of her mind, and learned from the mentors she fought tooth and nail to conquer the hardest lesson of all: that passion divorced from thought is mere reaction, and that “a faithful heart makes wishes come true.”
If Charles Dickens were alive today and taking his pick of 21st-century pop media, I‘d bet that movies would rank low on his list. Ardent populist though he was, Dickens thought, wrote and read aloud to his adoring audiences in installments: His instinctively episodic sensibility would have made him a natural for serial television, as would his genius for sketching characters as caricatures, breathing them over time into teeming human life. But cinema? Likely as not, he’d have dismissed film as too compressed, too much the one-shot deal, to encompass his endlessly expanding canvas of characters. As one critic noted of David Lean‘s Great Expectations, “It is Dickens, nothing but Dickens, but not the whole Dickens.”
From the heyday of the silent era (the first Dickens adaptation, The Death of Nancy Sykes, was shot in 1897) to the 1970s, directors from Ealing to Hollywood have begged to differ. Now, beginning December 21, the American Cinematheque will screen 13 Dickens adaptations, made between 1911 and 1970 — including two 16mm silent programs, with live piano accompaniment, that include the 1911 A Tale of Two Cities and a long-lost print of the 1922 Oliver Twist with Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin.
Melodrama came naturally to Dickens, so it’s not hard to understand the attraction his work held for filmmakers with delusions of grandeur, notably producer David Selznick, who appointed himself Dickens-interpreter-in-chief. And Lean, of course, whose Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are not only the cream of this crop, but arguably the cream of Lean‘s crop, after which he became a legend and drowned in epic hubris. Both films play with the genius for the telling image that makes Lean’s best work feel like the best of silent movies. Both, too, betray the sympathy he shared with Dickens for suffering, victimized boys. Who that has seen either of these films as a child could forget Pip watching the rodent nibbling at Miss Havisham‘s moldering wedding cake, or the shadow that falls across Oliver’s pinched, upturned face as he asks for more, or the dog furiously scrabbling at Bill Sykes‘ door as the villain clubs his Nancy to death for trying to rescue Oliver?
Masterpiece though it was, Oliver Twist got Lean in trouble with the Jewish community over Alec Guinness’ rendition of Fagin, and even sparked a riot in postwar Germany. Was Guinness‘ performance anti-Semitic? His makeup certainly was: Based on the original drawings by George Cruikshank (hostility toward Jews was rife in 19th-century England, and persists, albeit watered-down and discreetly expressed, into the 21st), his huge beak of a nose, unruly beard and shifty eyes must, a scant three years after the end of World War II, have reminded audiences of the notorious Jud-Suss and other Nazi propaganda cartoons. Still, Guinness’ Fagin was no more villainous than any other Dickens blackguard, and certainly less than the odious Sykes, garishly overplayed by the bug-eyed Robert Newton. And neither performance was more grotesque or eccentric than the others that Dickens movies generated: Claude Rains, anguished and sinister as the drug-addicted priest in Stuart Walker‘s cheesy The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which makes over Dickens’ unfinished last novel as a straight-up Universal horror picture; the reliable, portly Francis L. Sullivan, who as the Beadle Bumble in Oliver Twist got to intone, “The law is a ass” with such aggrieved conviction; and, most bizarrely of all, W.C. Fields, mugging away and striving in vain for good nature as Micawber in George Cukor‘s David Copperfield.
After the 1970s, the movie industry on both sides of the Atlantic more or less lost interest in Dickens, except for the odd musical. Given the steep decline, since that contested decade, in directors (never mind distributors) who are seriously interested in making films that explore character, it’s no surprise that no one outside of television thinks about adapting or remaking Dickens these days. So grab the opportunity, grab the kids and get yourself over to the Cinematheque, where, among other titles, you can see three Oliver Twists, two Christmas Carols, one Nicholas Nickleby and a partridge in a pear tree.