the beginning, the film seemed cursed. "We started shooting in the Gobi
Desert," Ang Lee recalls. "That night, the crew got lost in the desert
and it wasn't until 7 a.m. that we found them. We delayed shooting until
2 p.m. After the second shot, a sandstorm came in." Halfway through the
shoot, cast and crew looked like survivors of the Long March, with no
Tiananmen Square triumph in sight. "We shot around the clock with two
teams," says the 45-year-old director, dimpled but unsmiling. "I didn't
take one break in eight months, not even for half a day. I was miserableI
just didn't have the extra energy to be happy. Near the end, I could hardly
breathe; I thought I was about to have a stroke. It was bad. Six months
later, I'm still resting now, trying to get fit again. But since I'm middle-aged,
I'll probably never come back to normal."
sage said: dying is easy, filmmaking is hard. But everyone was so serious
on Crouching Tiger because Lee, who made his reputation with adult dramas-of-manners
like The Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility, had a child inside
screaming to get out. He was finally ready to pay homage to his lifelong
ardor for martial-arts novels and pictures. He had made beautiful films;
now he would bend his considerable artistry to make, dammit, a movie.
And nothing only about it.
At its screenings in Cannes, this scene was greeted with spontaneous applause, even from those professional misanthropes, the critics. From that moment on, Crouching Tiger had the Riviera swells in its pocket. They gasped with glee as Jen and Jade Fox soared into the night (Who does that? Angels and witches). They misted up at the friendship of Mubai and Shulien, two brave warriors who haven't quite the courage to say I love you. They happily took the film's 20-minute detour to the Gobi, where in a flashback Jen meets her bandit beau Lo (Chang) and makes love with the spontaneity of a first-time tryst and the calculation of a girl who has to be on top. (Forget the tepid marriage her father has arranged. Jen wants to love a fighter and fight her lover.) At the end, they sobbed farewell to an old friend who gives a beautiful valediction.
To Western viewers, Crouching Tiger has the tang of novelty. But Asian moviegoers, especially those of Lee's age, need no scholarship to plumb the lore of martial arts, or wuxia (knightly chivalry). In the '60s and early '70s young men came to maturityor were pickled in adolescencewatching sabre-rattling heroes of both sexes in such classics as Chang Cheh's The Golden Swallow (starring Cheng Peipei, the avenging villainess of Lee's film) and King Hu's epic A Touch of Zen. Some of the Crouching set-pieces, like Jen's one-woman stand against half a dozen marauders at an inn, are echoes of more recent films; Yeoh herself laid righteous waste to many a hostelry (in Tai Chi Master, Wing Chun, etc.). But as a newly illustrated memory book of youthful obsession, the movie has its roots in films of 30 years agobefore and after Bruce Lee.
In A Touch of Zen, the knights prudently do battle under bamboo trees. Lee had the inspiredor crackpotidea to stage the fight between Mubai and Jen on the tree's branches. Says Zhang: "I had to swing up and down, swirl and remember to try and act, all at the same time." Chow was grateful to the action director: "Wo-ping gave me as much protection as he could. He knows I'm not a martial arts man. And when you're hanging 60 feet up in the air in a bamboo forest, you need protection."
When he thinks about the scene, Lee is both chagrined and giddy. "It's nuts," he says. "It's sexy. Nobody wanted to do it. And there's a reason why people don't do that: because it's almost impossible! The first three days of shooting we did were a complete waste of time. There were 20 or 30 guys below the actors trying to make them float. It was just chaotic." Finally it worked: a scene so buoyant that the audience roars and soars along with the stars.
Lee is a visionary and a perfectionist; the movie he's directing rarely measures up to the one in his mind's eye. "The art of film," he says, "is the art of regret." So he fights for what he can get, which is often more than his colleagues can freely give. "Detail by detail, we had to find a way to make things work. And the actors aren't machines. After a few takes they're worn out. Then you're doing Take 31, and things are getting worse instead of better." Yet Lee's doggedness impressed and inspired at least one participant: Yeoh. "Usually when we do martial arts," she says, "we shift the focusthe action becomes everything. But here there's such a balance. It's emotional, it's dramatic. It transcends everything."
Lee might not like to compromise, but he has to adapt. He had first thought of Jet Li, he of the flying feet and dour demeanor, as Li Mubai. When Chow took the role, the action scenes were reduced but the character ripened. And, at times, what seems like a disappointment can be a sweet surprise. That was the revelation of Zhang Ziyi.
For all its pan-Asian star power, the movie depends on Jen and the actress who plays her. When first seen, Jen seems lovely but unformed, a dreamy adventuress who wants the freedom of the heroes she reads about. In one sense, she's the spoiled rich girl with a racing emotional motor. She aches for the forbidden thrill because she knows she would like itand knows she'd be good at it. Gradually, though, Jen (or, rather, Zhang) reveals the steel will beneath her silky waysand a more toxic, intoxicating beauty. On the cusp of womanhood, she could tumble either way: become a fearless heroine or a ferocious harlot. We know that she is guilty of one theft: she steals the film.
Everything is pretty in movies, but nothing is easy. And that includes Zhang's immersion into the character. She got to know the actor who would play her demon lover because, as Chang says, "We took acting lessons before we started the parts, so we were familiar with each other before shooting started." Lee's pre-production instructions to the young actor were simple: eat. "My biggest task was to put on weight, as the director said I was too skinny." (He bulked up fine; he's halfway to hunkdom.)
But Lee had stricter demands of his starlet. "For a time," he says, "she was nowhere near where I thought Jen should be. But when you can't get something to work, you improvise. If the mountain doesn't turn around, make the world turn around. So we made the character closer to her until there was a meeting in the middle. We veered the movie toward her. She is very sexy and we thought, sure, let's use that. It makes things start to happen. She is the most marvellous thing I've found."
Zhang Ziyi, though a game gal, was not schooled in martial arts, so lithe young stunt doubles, male and female, executed the more strenuous feats. "To find a good stuntwoman," Lee says, "is harder than finding a good wife." And to find a woman who is tops in stuntwork, acting and all-round allure is almost impossible. That's why Yeoh is so precious. On one good leg or two, she wore those wires, scaled those walls.
Lee drove Yeoh nearly to tears with his insistence on precise Mandarin speech. "I don't think I studied this hard even for exams," says the actress, whose family language was English. "Every single word needs the right intonation. I'd deliver a 16-line speech, get one word slightly wrong and Ang would say, 'Let's do it all again.' I'd say, 'Can't we just do the one word again?' 'No, let's do it all.' So many times I thought, 'I'm so stupid, I'm so stupid, why are you using me?' But it builds character. If you don't listen to Ang, then you're gonna do it again and again, so you'd better listen up."
After two Hollywood tough-guy films and a lovely turn as the King of Siam in The King and I, Chow was used to learning a new language with each script: "First English, then Thai, now this." But the experience was, as he says, "awful. The first day I had to do 28 takes just because of the language. That's never happened before in my life. It gave me a lot pressure."
So Chang and Zhang went to acting school; Chow and Yeoh crammed to speak Mandarin. And throughout, Lee was learning the limitations in the laws of stunt physics from Yuen. Movies, like life, are an education on the fly, with pop quizzes every moment. How apt, then, that the theme of Crouching Tiger should be teaching. In this war of the generations, the adults are as eager to instruct the young as the kids are to rebel against authority. And the wicked carry grievances for years. Jade Fox says she killed Mubai's master because "he would sleep with me but never teach me" the secrets of wuxia; and she bitterly resents Jen because the child hoarded martial lore for herself. Here, knowledge is power. And only the most powerful, like Mubai, can share it.
The star pupil, of course, is Jen, and the film's main question is: From whom will she agree to learn? Shulien and Mubai both want to test themselves against her precocity. But for Mubai it is a mission. "What do you want?" Jen asks him, and he replies, "What I've always wantedto teach you." For him education is a kind of intellectual and ethical parenting. Teaching this bright, willful girl is as close as he will come to fatherhoodeven if, as he must be aware, the job carries fatal risks.
"She needs direction and training," Mubai says of Jen." Surely that is Ang Lee speaking. A film director is the ultimate father figure, doling out responsibility, praise and censure. On Crouching Tiger, Lee, who secured his early fame with the so-called Father Knows Best trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman), was a father-teacher to Zhang the budding actress, to Yeoh the first-year Mandarin student, to Chow the man on the flying bamboo. And behind Lee was another family figure: the young Ang, mesmerized by tales of great fighters and images of impossible physical grace.
However much the middle-aged Ang Lee suffered in making this exquisite film, he should take a little pleasure knowing he helped realize the young Ang Lee's dream.
Reported by Stephen Short/Hong Kong
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