From the Jaws of the Tiger
by Fionnuala Halligan
South China Morning Post
They went and now they're back. Taiwan's Ang Lee, who stunned the world with Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm, Hong Kong's Chow Yun-fat, who hit Hollywood with The Replacement Killers and The King And I, and former Miss Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng, who kicked Bond girls into shape, have come together in a stunning China-based martial arts epic.
The US$15 million (HK$117 million) Mandarin-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is to get the biggest launch in America for a subtitled film.
A year in the making, the shoot was fraught with incident and difficulty. Yeoh, for instance, landed awkwardly during the first extended fight sequence and spent the next three months learning to walk all over again.
'Many times I felt like death,' recalls the 45-year-old Lee, whose lifelong ambition it was to make the film - in the tradition of his childhood favourites, all the Shaw Brothers classics and King Hu hits like A Touch Of Zen. His vision took him, quite literally, all over China - shooting film in the Gobi desert and the Taklamakan plateau near the Kurdistan border, Urumqi, the bamboo forest at Anji, Chengde and Beijing. 'If you set yourself up for something, you have to finish it,' he says pragmatically.
At two hours, Crouching Tiger is breathtaking both in terms of action - choreographed by Hong Kong's Yuen Wo-ping - and its female-centred plot. Premiered at Cannes it won standing ovations. 'This is the best film I've ever made,' Lee declares. 'Every little detail was a struggle. Pulling it together was such an effort.' One scene in particular, Chow fighting Zhang Zhiyi while perched precariously on giant bamboo branches, immediately enters the lexicon of classic film moments. And Asia will get to see its own talent first as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opens here on July 6.
'That's the biggest problem,' Lee says. 'I'm trying to reach America with this, but it's really made for the Asian audience. I can't bore them! And they know all the tricks very well.' Lee, who describes the film as a 'martial arts Sense And Sensibility', drew the source material from a five-part novel written by Wang Dulu before World War II - part of the wuxia, which chronicles the heroic actions of Taoist martial arts heroes.
'I was educated as a Chinese,' he says, 'but because my parents had come to Taiwan from China after the civil war, my idea of China was abstract, probably glorified. When I went back, of course, that place didn't exist. But all of us working on the film had this vision of China which united us together as Chinese. We were all looking for something in the pure classic Chinese world. We all tend to glorify this mythical China I portray in the film . . .' Including the mainland authorities, who passed Crouching Tiger at all censorship stages without batting an eyelid - even letting the print be shipped out for developing in New York. 'They miss the old China as much as we do!' Lee says. 'And this is their Gone With The Wind.' A sweeping love story, the film tells the tale of Li Mubai (Chow), the greatest martial artist of his time who is now ready to retire. He gives his Green Destiny sword to the woman he loves (but has never told), the fighter Shu Lien (Yeoh). She brings it to Beijing where it is stolen, possibly by a notorious female criminal called Jade Fox. 'It's a dream from my childhood,' Lee says. 'And it has never stopped. From King Hu to Jackie Chan to Shaw Brothers to the Jet Li movies, I think I've watched every single one of these films. And I have followed my dream to make my own. Now it has come true.' It was the first time that Yuen Wo-ping, who rose to international fame last year with The Matrix, has choreographed such predominantly female action sequences. It's also the first time a Chinese book has been translated into English, then back into Chinese for Lee to work with, and then again into English for the subtitling.
'I don't think the film would have got this far without suffering so much, it's inspiring in its own way,' Lee says. 'Because when you have difficulties, you are forced to solve them. You have no choice. Michelle being injured, for example, what could we do? We had to work around it. More difficult was that I was still rewriting the script while we were into shooting. Somehow, it still didn't make sense to me. It was so confusing. I'd set this thing up, taken a whole group of people and a big production, to make something out of a dream and then I didn't know what to do for a long period of time. On a daily basis, I had to deliver. I had to give direction. The production had to go on.
'In Chinese film-making, everybody defers to you, unlike an American movie, where the responsibility is more spread out. In China, you are doing it, and you carry the weight - they bring every single little decision to you. It was pretty dreadful.' Lee moved to New York in the mid-1970s to study film production at NYU (he helped fellow student Spike Lee on one of his shorts as a camera assistant), and still lives there with his wife and two young sons. He started out directing films in Taiwan, with his 'father knows best' trilogy - Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman - before shifting culture abruptly to direct Jane Austen's Sense And Sensibility. Next he delved into 70s-era suburban Connecticut in The Ice Storm, then the American civil war bushwhackers in Ride With The Devil, and now back 'home' to Qing dynasty China.
'I've spent the last few films paying huge attention to historical detail,' he says. 'While it was also important on this, it came secondary to the sense of drama, myth, the surreal aspect of the action. That was nice for a change.' He will spend the rest of the year promoting Crouching Tiger, and then work on 'something closer to home', he says. 'I've been away for more than a year.' And for once in his career, he's not sure what will come next. 'It's an emptying feeling, getting something like this out of your system,' he says. 'It took me three movies to get out of my father's shadow! Then I could have fun, finally make that Chinese martial arts movie I'd always wanted to do. So now I feel empty, but that's not a bad sense. It's like a weight being lifted. It's painful to go through that, but it's uplifting afterwards.'