Crouching Tiger, Surprising Lyricism

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a timeless adventure about the battle between a martial artist (Chow Yun-Fat), his lifelong love (Michelle Yeoh) and a female assassin (Cheng Pei-pei) over a magical sword. Fifteen minutes into the film, Chinese warriors fly over moonlit rooftops and skip across a pond. Their stunts are simply unbelievable. More importantly, Lee has created a martial-arts epic that achieves a level of poetry unfamiliar to the chop-socky genre.

Lee first returned to his native Taiwan to make his 1994 film, Eat Drink Man Woman. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon offers Lee a different type of homecoming. The martial-arts adventure is set entirely in mainland China, albeit a classic China that no longer exists. As a boy growing up in Taiwan, Lee was obsessed with the classic wuxia (warrior class) movies by Asian directors like King Hu. In 1995, a friend told Lee to about a five-part book by pulp novelist Wang Du Lee. The book's fourth volume, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a tale of female warriors, grabbed Lee's attention. For the director of the Jane Austen period drama, Sense and Sensibility, and the 1970s family drama, The Ice Storm, tackling a romance-adventure set in Old China would push him into a type of storytelling he'd never tackled before.

"It's really time for me to liberate from all of that and come to fulfill my boyhood fantasies and return to my cultural root, which is Taiwan but is a Chinese culture and to a genre that since childhood has captured my imagination," Lee says, speaking recently from New York City.

"I think every film is personal," Lee says, speaking softly. "It's a part of your personal aspect. But a movie like this, it takes more craft and production resources. It takes different shooting experiences. I think to me they're all interpersonal relationship stories. They're dramatic pieces. The nature of production is different. The performing art is different. Some films are bigger than others. Of course, Crouching Tiger so far is the biggest."

As a filmmaker Lee has never been considered a "flashmaster," comfortable around special effects. His films focus on an ongoing search for the human condition. Based on a script co-written by his frequent collaborator James Shamus, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brings ballet and battle together with a synergistic embrace. The action shifts from the realm of digital effect to something integral to the story. More importantly, Lee agrees that he has always been comfortable creating strong, female characters. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film that thrives on girl power.

A tight $15 million budget forced Lee to shoot around the clock with two crews. Sand storms and rainstorms in the Gobi Desert delayed production. A few weeks into shooting, co-star Michelle Yeoh broke her knee. By the end of filmmaking, Lee felt like he couldn't breathe. "The show must go on," he says. "You must carry the film. When you come back from shooting, that's when things backlash, and you start to feel it."

A perfectionist, Lee insisted that Yeoh and Yun-Fat learn to speak precise Mandarin. Inspired by the King Hu film, A Touch of Zen, Lee insisted that Jen and Li fight each other while balanced 60-ft. in the air on tree branches. Looking back on the finished film, Lee accepts that he couldn't bring his entire vision to life. The laws of gravity only allow for so much magic. Still for a veteran director of art-house films, Lee is content in the knowledge that he has finally made a populist movie.

Lee has enjoyed commercial success before. The Wedding Banquet, produced for $ 1 million, eventually earned $30 million at the box office. Still, for Lee, who has lived in the United States since 1978, when he enrolled in the theater program at the University of Illinois, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon introduces him to an entirely new audience.

Questions about the film's box-office potential are beginning to fade. The inkling of the film's success began last fall at a Dartmouth College screening before a sold-out audience of 1,000 students. Sony Pictures Classics has showed the film to Hip Hop artists like Wu-Tang Clan and MTV executives. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has broken box office records in England, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Basically, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the first Lee film to escape what he calls the "art-house ghetto" and play in suburban multiplexes. More importantly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon confirms Lee's ability to tell a variety of stories.

"Two things are most rewarding to me," Lee says. "One is from the filmmakers perspective. I get a chance to do it. That is the most rewarding thing. I've done it. The other thing is that I think it works as a movie. A pure movie. It's not a film. It's a movie-movie experience, and I think that's really how people look at it and talk about it. The reason I wanted to do this movie is because it's fun and emotional. That has been very rewarding, the feedback from the audience."

Already there is Internet gossip that Tom Cruise is sending Lee the script for Mission: Impossible 3 his way (something Lee firmly denies). In Entertainment Weekly's Best of 2000, Ang Lee is ranked 10. But Lee, who lives in White Plains, New York with his wife and two sons, gets a satisfaction from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that is more personal in nature: The film's tale of romance and moral justice was meant to rekindle his childlike fantasies. For Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film after his own boyhood heart.

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