Stealth And Duty

Film still for Stealth And Duty

"Sense and Sensibility with martial arts" is how director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus first described Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it turned out to be a more sumptuous and magical creation than that. Philip Kemp talks to them about curiosity and genre

In person the director Ang Lee is slight, shy and almost painfully soft-spoken. It's hard to reconcile this quiet, diffident presence with the martinet who reputedly laid down the law to such formidable thesps as Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson and was dubbed "The Brute" by Hugh Grant. Hard to believe, too, that this is the film-maker who for the last few years has been constantly wrong-footing film critics. Just when we thought we had him snugly pigeonholed as a maker of delicately funny Taiwanese family comedies (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) in which the tensions of filial duty versus personal pleasure are wryly observed, he started zig-zagging off, like an unruly firecracker, into one unexpected genre after another. Not since the late Louis Malle has a director shown himself so set on never doing the same thing twice.

Having completed his Taiwanese trilogy, Lee took everyone aback, not just by diverting into classic Eng-lit territory with Sense and Sensibility, but, with the help of star and scriptwriter Emma Thompson, by trumping the competition and giving us the most lively and cinematic Austen adaptation yet screened. The acute sense of period, place and unspoken social convention of Sense also informed The Ice Storm, Lee's beautifully crafted version of novelist Rick Moody's psychological study of lust and parental responsibility among a wintry New England community in the morally queasy early 70s. So far, it's true, these were all family-sized dramas, though in widely differing modes and moods. But any temptation to dismiss Lee as an essentially domestic talent was disproved by last year's Civil War saga Ride with the Devil, which took in buddy bonding, range riding and the ravaging of communities. It was the director's first foray into action movies - part war film, part Western and wholly original.

And now with his latest film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (his first Chinese-language production since Eat Drink) Lee has taken another disconcerting sideswerve - into, of all things, the martial-arts genre. Is this constant self-reinvention part of a conscious game plan - a deliberate strategy to avoid being typecast? Lee says not, or at least not initially. Credit for launching him on his idiosyncratic career pattern should go, it seems, to Lindsay Doran, producer of Sense and Sensibility. "She saw The Wedding Banquet," Lee recalls, "and thought I'd be the proper person to interpret Jane Austen the way she understood it. I didn't feel I did anything new there, I was just learning how to do a period piece in English. But after that I felt the urge to do something else - what else was fun out there? I wanted to go out for adventure and scare myself."

"Adventure" would certainly describe Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. But even for seasoned Lee-watchers, it's a touch startling to find a director of his high aesthetic sensibility straying into a genre generally reckoned as ultra-populist, not to say downmarket. ("Cheesy" is Lee's own slyly proffered adjective.) To some extent, of course, it's a nostalgia trip, an affectionate homage to the movies he loved as a boy in Taiwan, films full of magic and poise that offered a peculiar poetry of elegant fight moves and belief-suspending stunts. But he also relished the challenge of taking the genre, and his own career, into places they'd never been before. Relating Tiger back to his previous films, he explains: "In a sense sometimes I've been able to show I despise the commercial side of movie-making and in this film I could probably decide I wanted to despise the artistic side. It's not highbrow or lowbrow, and by doing it this way it's not middlebrow either. It was just so cool to be able to do it, to mix your boyhood and adulthood together. And think of the challenge. In China I have to deliver this movie as a summer blockbuster but here it has to hit the arthouses to begin with. It takes a lot of pain to keep that balance, and the physical logistics of that size of production are abusive. But I really enjoyed doing it."

The plot is drawn from a massive five-volume novel written by Wang Du Lu some 80 years ago and the action is set a century before that, in a mythical version of the early 19th century in the late Qing dynasty. These were the last decades before encroaching western influences shattered China's ancient way of life, and the period is often wistfully looked back on as the sunset years of a simpler, more heroic age. The story revolves around two couples - one pair mature, worldly-wise, the other young and impetuous. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) are among the greatest warriors of their age, pious and seasoned comrades who have never dared admit their mutual love. Weary of fighting, Li entrusts Yu with his mythic sword, Green Destiny, to present to the venerable Sir Te in Beijing. When it's stolen, Yu guesses the culprit is the young, beautiful Jen (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of an aristocratic clan. Jen is engaged to be married to a rich dullard, but she's addicted to the warrior world and is secretly in love with dashing bandit Lo (Chang Chen) who once held her captive in the desert. She's also entangled with evil villainess Jade Fox who once killed Li Mu Bai's master.

This is easily Lee's most aesthetically delectable movie so far. The unit was able to shoot all over mainland China, taking in spectacular scenery of jagged mountains and silver lakes, ethereal forests and parched deserts, and some of the compositions are so achingly beautiful you want to freeze the frame. To anyone for whom 'martial-arts movies' means Bruce Lee's high-aggression onslaughts or the cheerful knockabout of Jackie Chan, Tiger will come as a revelation. The fights in Chan's and Bruce Lee's films, as in the great majority of the genre, are based on Shaolin, the more violent, external-strength style of classic martial arts, from which kung fu is derived. Tiger draws on the more subtle practices of Wudan, whose adherents rely for their power on personal renunciation and inner strength - martial arts as spiritual discipline. In visual terms this lends the film's fight scenes a soaring, balletic grace: the combatants pursue each other up walls and over roofs, skimming across the surface of lakes, duelling all the way. The climax comes with a breathtakingly elegant airborne duel fought out amid the green treetops of a bamboo forest.

For these sequences (much aided by sophisticated but unobtrusive CGI work) Lee had the services of Yuen Woo-Ping, the maestro martial-arts choreographer who also worked on The Matrix. "The way he works," says Lee with evident admiration, "is that he makes his own assembly. It's spontaneous: he works out one shot, sees what happens and then takes on the next. It's all put together in this assembly fashion so if I don't like something it's very hard to take it out. It's not like shooting coverage on a conventional scene where you have six cameras and so many choices. If you break these sequences the narrative doesn't work. It's insane to me that every year in Asia they give the Best Editing award to a martial-arts movie because it looks so dashing. It was edited when it was shot! You can give it to any editor, it'll come out the same way. It was a very valuable lesson to me."

The film's tonal palette (photographed by leading Hong Kong DoP Peter Pau) is altogether lighter and airier than Lee's previous work. The director "made a decision to go with middle-tone, low-contrast. When you're doing a Chinese fantasy, of course, you think of the paintings, so you use a lot of negative space, desaturated colour like watercolour. And then I had this idea of the tiger and the dragon: the tiger in the desert, out in the open, obviously red, while the hidden dragon, representing hidden desire, everything that's taboo, will be presented in green, so I went to the forest. And you have the fatal sword, Green Destiny, and the villainess, Jade Fox."

Matching this visual opulence, Tiger is suffused with a yearning romanticism that transmutes its stock-melodrama plotline into a rapturous meditation on love, honour and destiny. The flashback episode in the desert where Jen is kidnapped by her bandit chief carries a full-throated romantic charge that harks back to the days of Valentino - a far cry from the cool, spare geometries of The Ice Storm. To Lee this sequence was "a bigger challenge, more scary, than doing martial arts. With martial arts the worst scenario is that I make a fool of myself and it looks funny. But a romantic scene that flops, that's just awful. Then it's all over. The lyrical element comes along with the romance, you don't really have to think about it. It's a romantic impulse in itself to go back to China and create this unreal, fantastic scenario. And making a martial-arts picture that goes back to boyhood fantasy is also a romantic quest. But the love element was something I'd never done before, so I saw it as a challenge to put myself in that romantic mood."

Beneath these novel elements, though, Tiger is very recognisably an Ang Lee film - not just in its scrupulously crafted texture and attention to detail but in its humanist focus on personal relationships and its thematic preoccupations. It's revealing that Lee and James Schamus, his regular collaborator as writer-producer, originally pitched the concept as "Sense and Sensibility with martial arts". Half-jokingly, to be sure; but underlying the fantasy and visual magic is the theme that runs through Sense and Sensibility as through all Lee's work, the theme he identifies as "social obligation versus personal freedom". As Lee puts it, whatever the genre, "My reflection on the material is my creative output into the film. That's my authorship. Unless I feel emotionally and personally in touch with the material, I don't want to do it. I use the language of genre to tell something that's internal; I'm making a martial-arts picture, but what I'm really dealing with is the hidden dragon."

The genesis of Tiger dates back to 1994, just after Lee had completed Eat Drink, but problems over rights and the intricate logistics of setting up the long, complex shoot in China delayed the project for five years. Originally, Schamus notes, "We always thought Ang would go back and forth between Chinese- and English-language movies. So we've had a guilty conscience that the Chinese side of Ang's life was not being attended to. Now I hope we'll be able to yin and yang it a bit more regularly. The other thing was that after Sense and Sensibility, all of a sudden the bar was raised in terms of film-making. There are still wonderful stories to be told in the Eat Drink Man Woman or Pushing Hands mode, but it would be difficult for Ang to go back to China to make an appropriately budgeted film like that. He had to go way up. So the only genre that made sense from that point of view turned out to be the martial-arts movie. And that takes time to set up."

Time, too, for Schamus as co-writer to feel his way into a culturally alien genre. "Of course, Ang grew up on this stuff. I had a scattershot acquaintance with some martial-arts movies and I'd had an introduction to a few translations but most of the time I couldn't make head nor tail of what he was talking about. Certain things that read as incongruous to me - all that shtick with the secret book, for example, or the poses people strike before they commence action - I just had to acknowledge as essential to the genre. I used to joke that I wrote the screenplay in the International Subtitle Style. What I wrote had to be translated into Chinese then back into English then rewritten again. So I started with the subtitles then Ang and the folks in China extended them using 5000 years of history into a place from which I couldn't bring them back."

Further delay was occasioned by the labyrinthine series of interlocking co-production deals that underpinned the financing of the film. Tiger represents part of Sony's new Asian initiative, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, which also co-financed Zhang Yimou's two latest films. But as Schamus relates, "The financing of this movie is an index of what the global film business really is these days. We had a French bank and an LA-based bond company; we had seven different pre-buyers and different distribution companies throughout the major territories in Europe; we sold it to two parts of Sony, Sony Pictures Classics and Sony Pictures Asia; and of course our co-producer was in China. Our lawyers were in New York, the producers were in Taiwan and Hong Kong and the pre-production was in Beijing. The production company had to bifurcate into two separate companies which eventually became three, and the Hong Kong company had a British Virgin Islands company because of the structure of the deals for tax purposes as well as a North American limited-liability company. And all these deals had to be simultaneously closed for any money to start to flow. I was more or less mincemeat by the time we started pre-production."

Lee, though, feels it was no bad thing that the project was held back. "I'd gained a lot more skill working with top British and American crews and actors, so I think I was more ready for this job, which was very complicated - primitive and sophisticated at the same time. Also working on action scenes in Ride with the Devil was a good warm-up. Something I learned there was that if I'm too far away from the actors for too long, then it doesn't matter how great a shot I've staged, it's gone. In a dramatic movie people get involved with the story, the character development, so to stop everything and do action is boring. In making a boyhood fantasy come true you can get all worked up about the action, you want to impress people with what kind of number you can pull off; but then you forget it's storytelling that matters. Unless you use the action as an extension of character and relationship, the audience won't get hooked."

So far Tiger's audiences have shown themselves good and hooked. The film opened to huge acclaim in Hong Kong, and in Taiwan it rapidly became the country's biggest-grossing Chinese-language film ever. "It's done wildly well in the smaller Asian territories, including Korea," says Schamus. "So the great news is that Asia has embraced the film, not just from a business point of view but also from a cultural angle. It marks a specific cultural moment in Asia, and in Chinese-speaking Asia in particular. You've got Michelle Yeoh from Malaysia, Chun Yow-Fat from Hong Kong, Chang Chen from Taiwan, Zhang Ziyi from Beijing. Ang's from Taiwan shooting on the mainland, with Hong Kong heads of department using Beijing technical talent. The film's a real pan-Chinese effort: I'm very proud of that." Not to mention the Chinese-born, American-domiciled composer Tan Dun, whose sweeping score, featuring the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, blends traditional Chinese instruments with lush Hollywood strings to lift Lee's film to the emotional intensity of grand opera.

With his biggest production yet under his belt, what's next for the unpredictable Ang Lee? Is there any genre he'd rule out? "I suppose I might hesitate to try a porno movie. But then, I'd have said a Civil War movie was something I never wanted to do. The costumes are ugly, the guys are ugly, I don't like the principles they're fighting for and the women's clothes are the least attractive in history. But then something came along and I changed my mind. So I don't dare to say there's anything I wouldn't do." Meanwhile, next up if Lee and Schamus' current plans pan out is a musical, no less - an American musical with a modern setting. "Scary - very scary," says Ang Lee with a grin of pure delight.

Ang Lee: a filmography

Born 23 October 1954 in Ping-Tong (Taiwan)

As Director

The Runner US/short
I Love Chinese Food US/short
Beat the Artist US/short
I Wish I Was by that Dim Lake US/short
Fine Line US/short
Yui Shou/Pushing Hands Taiwan/US
+ co-producer/screenplay/co-editor
Xiyan/Hsi Yen/ The Wedding Banquet Taiwan/US
+ co-producer/co-screenplay/as guest
Yinshi Nan NĂ¼/ Eat Drink Man Woman Taiwan
+ co-screenplay/ Ang Lee Productions
Sense and Sensibility US
The Ice Storm US
+ co-producer
Ride with the Devil US
2000: Wo Hu Zang Long/Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Hong Kong/Taiwan/US
+ co-producer

Other Work

Yang + Ying: Gender in Chinese Cinema Hong Kong/UK
d. Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang as interviewee
Shaonu Xiao-Wu/ Siao Yu Taiwan/US
d. Sylvia Chang as co-producer
Sense and Sensibility Behind the Scenes
UK (TV doc), d. Sandra Murray, Colin Burrows
as interviewee
Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012