'Crouching Tiger' and the Chinese way
Kung-fu flicks are usually as predictable as a dollar plate of chop suey.Skip to next paragraph
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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."