Lee's latest film may be the biggest surprise yet, not least to the director himself. Heroic fantasies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, full of flying sword-fights, heroic duels and magical shenanigans, have long been a staple in the Chinese-speaking world, where the wu-xia, as it is known, is a prominent genre in both pop literature and cinema, but the genre is hardly one well-known to audiences abroad. However far the semi-mythological past of the wu-xia may be from the ganster gunplay and death-defying chopsocky that most audiences expect from Chinese genre cinema, Crouching Tiger has nonetheless vaulted gracefully to the pinnacle of many an American critic's Top Ten list.
Lee seems gratified by the wide popularity of what is for him a very personal picture. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie I'd wanted to make since childhood," Lee says in a recent telephone interview. "When I was a child in Taiwan, the fiction really captured my imagination, more so than the movies. When I had the production resources and the knowledge, I wanted to do something more ... with the genre." And though Crouching Tiger has a conventional source -- it is an adaptation of a wu-xia pulp novel, the fourth in a series of five -- it is certainly a swordfight film unlike any other. "It is not more English than Chinese," he says, "but some things were sharpened up so it wouldn't be embarrassing to some audiences. It is more philosophical, and the romance is more important."
The production of this revisionist wu-xia brought together top-notch talents from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States, including cellist and composer Yo-Yo Ma, veteran director and fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, and HK superstar Chow Yun-Fat. It was also Lee's first film shot in China. It was a subtly radical choice. Hong Kong was only returned to Chinese control in 1997, and Taiwan has been a separate nation and a political hot spot since the island broke away following the success of the Communist revolution on the mainland.
"It was somewhat challenging," says Lee, whose gift for understatement may equal his talent for visual poetics. The five-month shoot involved two crews working two 12-hour shifts a day. One unit, supervised by Yuen, focused on the film's spectacular fighting scenes, while the other worked on the dramatic sequences and "big beauty shots." "We were somewhere between Hollywood and Hong Kong" says Lee, who, of course, had to stay on top of both, working as much as 20-22 hours a day.
Despite his string of critical successes in the United States and Taiwan, Lee was unsure of how his dream film would fare in the international marketplace. "Initially, I was thinking primarily of a Taiwanese audience," he said, "I could not tell if [American] audiences could accept the costumes, the choreography, the acting -- which have a cultural code unto themselves. And in Hong Kong, this [genre] is their pride, and they have a certain way of seeing it."
Yuen, who has handled the fisticuffs for such U.S. mainstreamers as The Matrix, was particularly concerned about how Americans accustomed to Jackie Chan and Jet Li would respond to the highly theatrical swordplay and extensive wire-work in the film, says Lee. "Metaphorically, defying gravity is defying society, so we said 'what the hell?'"
Happily, Lee's innovative wu-xia has won a warm welcome in both hemispheres. It broke the box for a Chinese language film in Taiwan, wowed Chow fans in HK (even though the leading man who made his rep playing urban rebels here plays a bald, becalmed swordmaster) and looks to be a serious contender for a few of our own Oscars.
Though he is hard at work on several upcoming American projects, Lee's pioneering Crouching Tiger seems to point to a new kind of international filmmaking for a new kind of global audience. "I love the scrutiny of other cultures, West to East. ... When you do things for one specific audience, you do it matter-of-factly, you don't even think about it. You can be kind of vague. But when you have to make it acceptable to other cultures, you enlarge your audience -- and you make the process itself richer."
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