BEIJING — Kung-fu flicks are usually as predictable as a dollar plate of chop suey.
But in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the martial artists go beyond mere acrobatics and flying fists. They float over medieval Beijing rooftops and skip across lakes with barely a ripple, defying time and space.
Director Ang Lee's virtuous plot and ethereal flight sequences have transformed the film into a mainstream US cinematic phenomenon. The same cannot be said for its box-office receipts in China.
Still, the film gracefully captures, say experts here, an often-ignored side of the Chinese character. It's a side that responds to feelings of independence, inspiration, and escape from the mundane - something that neither modernity nor Marxism have completely erased in China.
"Martial arts is the style of life of the Chinese people," says Lou Weimin of the Chinese Wushu Research Institute in Beijing. "We love mastery of exercise, and balance. But when you see these film characters weightless and floating, you see our desire for an imaginative release; we think of escaping an earthbound existence, through discipline."
Beijing schoolchildren learn, for example, text from a book by ancient "wushu" master Zhung Zi that reads: "Within 10 steps of my area, 1,000 people can't harm me." (Wushu means "art of fighting.") Morning and evening, Chinese TV features silk-clad tai chi exercise masters who urge viewers to practice - just as American TV features aerobics.
Ang Lee himself took the same two- month martial arts training course in China that his three main stars underwent for the film. Their teacher, Zhong Xuan Ma, a kung fu champion and coach of the Chinese kickboxing team in Beijing, says the director physically trained harder than anyone on the set "to understand the inner dimension of the art."
Mr. Ma, whose office walls are splattered with martial arts posters, says it was not so difficult teaching stars the mechanics of poses, stances, and movements, "though [leading man] Chow Yun-fat had never worked with swords before." The difficult part was communicating to the actors "what mastery looks like on the face, what authority and calmness are like as an expression. It was hard to teach how to imitate authenticity," he smiles.
Flying wushu actors who outleap Michael Jordan are not new in Asia. Scenes of airborne masters (support wires visible) are found in Shanghai films of the 1940s. Kung fu movies truly developed in Hong Kong in the 1950s - but in a genre that was more cops and robbers than Ang Lee's King-Arthurian epic. Legendary Bruce Lee brought kung fu to US audiences in the 1960s, followed by Jackie Chan.
"Ang Lee has taken the Chinese martial arts film to a whole new level," says Michael Primont, an American executive who runs the Cherry Lane theater in Beijing and teaches a college course on film here. "I was skeptical at first. But when I saw it, I was bowled over. It's a beautiful ballet that evokes some sense of the inner strength and valor of the wushu."
Partly, the wushu film genre plays into a strong "save the world" desire in the Chinese psyche, says Zhou Yu, a graduate student in philosophy at Beijing University and an editor of an online economics journal. "The Hidden Dragon theme plays into the idea of bad police, of official corruption, of a need to set things right."
In the traditional Chinese novel, for example, the parents of a young boy are killed or imprisoned by enemies. The boy is saved by a monk, brought to a mountain top, and trained in martial arts. By 18 he is ready to avenge his parents and bring justice to a faulty world, while falling passionately in love several times over. At 20 he finds a book of wisdom. He then meets a master. By age 30 or so he is the greatest wushu fighter on the planet.
In "Crouching Tiger," the teacher of leading wushu player Chow Yun-fat is assassinated by an evil hag, Jade Fox. Chow does not want revenge, still, circumstances force him to take action.
"As a Chinese, I can't get away from this feeling of saving the world," says Mr. Zhou. "Even though I know it is silly, that the world is fragmented all over the place, and I can't save it - still I want to."
Wushu masters in China derive partly from an ancient world characterized in many places by a poor legal system and a basic need for protection. Police were unreliable. Travel in the countryside was especially dangerous. Chinese with wealth would hire wushu masters for defense and security. In "Hidden Dragon," for example, leading lady Michelle Yeoh plays the owner of her late father's security company.
TODAY, four major schools dominate martial arts here. The Nan Quan school originates in the south and emphasizes strength and macho valor (Bruce Lee is from the Nan Quan school.) The Shaolin school stresses agility; It derives from Hunan province monks who protected the emperor, and it is known in the US through the TV series Kung Fu. Tai Chi is the best known school (spawning five styles) - and centers on concentration, and exercise. Ba Gua is based on the belief of complementary forces of yin-yang, and develops quick hand and feet motions.
Kung fu reached such levels of enthusiasm in the West that some Chinese here now scoff at what they see as naive American infatuation with it. And some critics accuse Ang Lee of "orientalizing" his film. That is, choosing images of the East that play to overromanticized images that Americans supposedly want to see. Other commentators feel Lee has done just the opposite - gently poking fun at kung fu movies.
Ironically, here in the land of martial arts, "Hidden Dragon" has not caught on. Partly this is due to a disagreement over distribution rights; The film was pulled from theaters a week after it opened last summer, and only returned months later. By that time, pirated "Hidden Dragon" DVDs sold on the streets for $1.50. Still, the pacing, the romance, the moral drama is seen by many Chinese as too slow and involved for a medium whose central purpose in this country is simple fun.
"Growing up with kung fu movies is a little bit like growing up with peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches," says Mr. Primont. "If you've eaten Skippy brand for 15 years, and someone gives you a different kind, you won't eat it."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society