Defying Gravity

Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

Lee pitched his film as <i>Sense and Sensibility</i> with martial arts.
Lee pitched his film as "Sense and Sensibility with martial arts."

With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee took one of the most maligned of cinematic genres -- the martial arts film -- and created an epic many critics (this one included) are calling the year's best movie. Adapted by frequent collaborator James Schamus (The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil) from a chapter in Wang Du Lu's novel, it is part childhood fairy tale, part adolescent rock-'em-sock-'em and gushy romance, part adult meditation on societal roles. "Sense and Sensibility with martial arts," Lee called it in the film's pitch meetings. And as bizarre as that may sound, it's as good a summation of this film as any I've read. Both films focus on two women -- the older one repressed and duty-bound, the younger one passionate and reckless -- trying to find their way in a male-dominated culture. But where Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet sing at the piano forte and dance the occasional waltz, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi scuttle up the walls of the palace and leap over rooftops in the dark of night.

Lee's movies often deal with this urge to rebel, this conflict between society and the individual spirit, but it is one of the only things they have in common. Throughout the Nineties, the Taiwanese-born director quietly built one of the most pleasantly unpredictable careers around. After success with the modest culture-clash comedies Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman (known collectively as the "Father Knows Best" trilogy), Lee surprised everyone by making Sense and Sensibility, just the kind of carefully calibrated, "feminine" comedy you wouldn't expect a filmmaker from Taiwan to direct. (This, along with the fact that the protagonist of The Wedding Banquet is gay, led me to believe for years that Lee was either a woman or a gay man; he is neither.) Lee's next project was The Ice Storm, an exquisite movie about self-indulgent WASPs in Seventies Connecticut, based on Rick Moody's novel. The film is so smart about American families, so cringingly precise about that decade, it's hard to believe it was made by a non-native. (Englishman Sam Mendes would repeat this feat with American Beauty.) Lee tackled the Civil War in Ride With the Devil, and for his next trick, ladies and gentleman, he says he might just make a Hollywood musical. It's as if he's challenging the whole notion of what a Taiwanese director can do. You'd never know it from talking with him, but Ang Lee -- short of stature, soft of speech -- is a bit of a rebel himself.

The following conversation took place over the phone, just prior to the film's New York release early last December. Lee had been giving interviews all day, and he had been promoting the film for weeks. That aggressive campaign paid off when the movie opened in New York, breaking per-screen records in the city's arthouse theatres. Now, after what has seemed like a particularly excruciating one-month delay, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is finally coming to Austin this Friday, where it will no doubt send hearts -- not to mention ticket sales -- soaring.

Austin Chronicle: A lot of your films have strong female protagonists. What appeals to you about that?

Ang Lee: I like to do that. What can I say? [laughs] I found the strong female characters spoke for me the best. Especially when they have to make decisions. That probably reflects my own life: Women make decisions for me. I have a hard time making decisions. My male leads, in all my movies, they're the guys who cannot make decisions. They have to make decisions based on what women tell them. In my later films, the father figures are even more clueless. Like Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm, or Li Mu Bai in this movie. It's a good vehicle for me to examine that very male-dominated genre and to examine the repressed, patriarchal society I came from. But people find it very refreshing, I think.

AC: One of your leads, Michelle Yeoh, was injured early in the shoot. How did that happen?

AL: Things usually happen when people are nonchalant and tired, when we think there's no danger. There was one night shoot, she had a regular routine, a flying kick. The leg in the air doing the kick, that was her bad knee, an old injury. I think she must have paid attention to that knee and not paid attention to the good knee, and just landed improperly and snapped the ligament. She had to be absent for months, taken back to the States and put through surgery and rehab. That was pretty painful. For production, we had to reschedule everything.

AC: Did you ever consider replacing her?

AL: No, no. If the doctors had said she could not walk for five months, then I would have had to replace her. But I was hoping that wouldn't happen. Because there's no replacement for Michelle. Not only as an actress but as a movie star, especially in Asia. And I just had this feeling. I always saw her playing the part. I thought she worked all of her career just aiming toward this part. I was just praying and hoping and doing everything I could, including, you know, we ran all over China, and the part that's her compound, that's in the southern part of China, is a seven days' company move from Beijing. And she was going through surgery, so she couldn't be there. So we shot there using a stunt double, and then we came back to Beijing and built the courtyard exactly like the one we used in southern China. We built a set for her and rewrote the script a little bit.

AC: You've said that the man who did the film's fight choreography, Yuen Wo Ping, is one of your heroes. Can you tell me why?

AL: He's been making fantastic films for years. He cares a lot about the old, classic style of kung fu fighting. But he's still improving and making changes, so he remains on top for way over 20, 30 years. I noticed each time there's a revolutionary change [in fight choreography], he was the one who initiated it. You know, the first Jackie Chan movie that made Jackie Chan [Drunken Master] -- that started kung fu comedy. People were copying that for the next 10 years. And then he did Once Upon a Time in China. He made Jet Li. This is the 10th year since Once Upon a Time in China. So I kept saying, "Come on, give me something different. We gotta do something that people will copy for the next decade." [laughs]

AC: What new things did the two of you invent for this movie?

AL: I think we brought a refinement to the genre. Certainly wire works, which he hates. He is not a believer in wire works. He likes to have more grounded fights. So we married the two together. I think the wire work is a big improvement, because now, digitally, we can remove the wires. Bigger shots, more graceful shots. A more roundish kind of movement, I think that will be influential. In the past there's been collision -- pow! pow! pow! -- harsh blows. Now we have the dissolving, roundish, more dancelike movement. More Tai-Chi style, Wudan-style. My contribution, on the artistic side, is the drama. Fighting is to be used as an extension of internal feelings. Exchanging blows is like exchanging dialogue. We didn't do anything revolutionary, but I think the refinement we did makes a significant difference. And treating the movie as a whole. It's not plot-plot-plot, talk-talk-talk, when you can't wait for the next fighting scene.

I began to realize why martial arts films today have very little rough, emotional content, says Ang Lee. Because after you shoot those fight scenes, you have nothing left.
"I began to realize why martial arts films today have very little rough, emotional content," says Ang Lee. "Because after you shoot those fight scenes, you have nothing left."

AC: Can you give me some examples?

AL: Like the women's showdown. There's a lot of jealousy going on. Sour feelings. They have to exchange not only in words, but in their looks and the way they kick -- one is more blue-collar, the other is more graceful. Or in the rooftop chase scene, that's [Michelle Yeoh's character] Shu Lien chasing her future happiness, and it's about her chasing something in the dark, a black figure. It's like she's dealing with her inner dragon, hidden dragon. And she's more grounded. The other character is flying, and Shu Lien is bringing her down to the ground. With [Chow Yun Fat's character] Li Mu Bai, fighting is about teaching. And fighting on top of the bamboo was sexy. It's almost like a caress, uninhibited desire.

AC: I heard you are going to do a prequel to this movie.

AL: Maybe. Someday. When I recover from this one.

AC: This shoot was exhausting.

AL: Yeah, very exhausting. It took us a number of days, 100 days, to shoot the fight scenes. And still another half of the movie had to be done. So that was pretty painful. And then I began to realize why martial arts films today have very little rough, emotional content. Because after you shoot those fight scenes, you have nothing left.

I need time to refresh. And I need new ideas and to see if I can do better. Because for a big part of the shoot, I was learning at the same time.

AC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn?

AL: To see action not as action but as filmmaking. It's funny that I'm a filmmaker, but I had to relearn that I'm a filmmaker, not a martial artist. I was very taken in by the martial arts principles and fantasies and literatures and doctrines, and then I tried to take it from there, but it's not really doable. It's choreography. It's movie effects and acting. So that was the hardest thing to adjust. Well, they told me the first day, but it took me like two months to get the idea.

AC: You seem to give yourself incredible challenges for every movie.

AL: I think that's the thrill. I'm interested in making those movies. I'm curious about them. And I get excited thinking that maybe I can do it. It's like kids going on a ride. It's just fascinating and exciting. And the fear tends to bring the best out in me. 'Cause I had to do certain things well. I was afraid of flopping. It's a great thrill.

AC: You were afraid?

AL: Oh, constantly. Yeah, sure. Totally scared. You can't look scared on the set -- I don't want people to see me scared.

AC: So do you feel like audiences so far have responded the way you thought they were going to?

AL: Oh, I think they responded better than I expected. I'm very happy how people are taking it in. And I think they have an emotional attachment to it, and it has a somewhat thought-provoking effect. For the audience in Taiwan, for people who grew up like me, I think they really get it. Whatever I try to hide, they dig it out. That's the most satisfying part for me. On the surface, we deliver a genre film, but it has two requirements: action and melodrama. end story

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opens in theatres Jan. 12. See Film Listings for review.

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