Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

By Nasreen Munni Kabir, Cathy Greenhalgh and Peter Culshaw

A Wind from the East?

Popular cinema everywhere works on some similar basic principles. Heroes, heroines, and villains represent the archetypes of their culture and lead the narrative in a variety of stories that are ultimately full of universal emotions and universal values. But so far in the West, Hollywood’s dominance hasn’t allowed other big popular cinema traditions to compete on equal terms. Despite all the curiosity about Bollywood and Hong Kong movies, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the first film to have overcome the apprehension that subtitled films, and foreign films (we’re not talking about the art house) aren’t entertaining and box office value for mainstream audiences. At last the popular cinemas of China (India is bound to follow) are gaining their long overdue recognition.

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Nasreen Munni Kabir has produced and directed over 100 half-hour programmes for Channel 4, including Movie Mahal and How To Make a Bollywood Movie. Her latest publication on Hindi film (working title Bowled Over by Bollywood) is to be published by Channel 4/Macmillan in August.

High-flying Romance

Analyzing film ‘style’ can consign cinematography to the purely visual. This can lead to the belief that simple application of a device will yield a certain result. A recent interview with Peter Pau, Director of Photography on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, however, confirms some key underlying factors at the heart of production.

Cinematography is mired with inherited shooting conventions, but it is also a spatial practice, experienced and lived physically in the body, with a history of inventions and ways of seeing discovered on the set in the process of making stories work. Like many cinematographers, Pau thinks musically and choreographically in relation to framing, lighting and movement. “Knowing how to count is essential” says Pau, “I urge my crew to be more into music, it’s exactly like action... the whole crew needs to be in synchronization... to feel the tempo of it.” In mythical Kung Fu, Pau suggests, “enlightenment is all about lifting, flying... so we tried to fly with the action... at human eye-level... poetic and drama-driven, not action-driven... not about doing high-flying kicks… but about high-flying romance”.

diary-of-a-country-priest-robert-bresson.jpgLe Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951

Bresson’s Le Journal d’un curé de campagne explores the sensibility of a “village priest, and what his devotion to God and sexual restraint mean for him”. The curé reprimanding Louise (Nicole Maurey) the Count’s mistress. “A radical move in the current clime”?

Pau himself was operator on the main camera because “for martial arts, you need a particular eye to watch the movement of the action.” He trained in the USA, and was born into a “Hong Kong filmmaking family.” His regular crew are “inventors” of solutions to cope with the technical demands of, for example, shooting one hundred feet up in a bamboo forest. Crewing traditions affect performances. Pau is inspired by the spontaneity and risk-taking of Hong Kong crews and actors, and maintains that “they work very fast. Things are not unionized, so there is this flexibility. Hollywood could never do Crouching Tiger… because they would never have actors on top of trees... Hollywood grips could never do it... this is what makes it difficult yet so magical”.

“Cinematography is a western invention”, states Pau, influenced by “western oil painting, in which there is a specific idea of what light is supposed to be... but in Chinese painting everything is muted.” None of the ubiquitous smoke of action films was used,  nor special filtration or lab techniques. Ideas were influenced by the cultural use of space in Chinese watercolours; vertical compositions and “negative space... subtracting in order to make this impossible action look possible... no solid black or white, only mid-tones and the simplest direction of the light.” These were married to digital enhancement of colour, such as “hotting up the green” to express “the confusion of love” in the bamboo forest fight.

(Quotations from an interview with Peter Pau by the author and Liz Nagy at Camerimage, Lodz, Poland. 8.12.2000. Further shooting details:

Cathy Greenhalgh lectures on cinematography at the London College of Printing School of Media. Her doctoral research is an ethnography of cinematographers and the activities of the set.

Fusion Cinema

I’m taking it as read that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is more interesting than the average product both from Hollywood and the macho Hong Kong action film production line. It looks fabulous – but then so does World Of Interiors magazine. There are some great performances - better than most weeks on Eastenders – and there are tough but also feminine action heroines (anything to counter the prevailing ethos that seems to result in vast numbers of anorexic or bulimic girls self-destructing). It also must be a good thing that a foreign language film picked up four Oscars – and we may at least hope this is a harbinger of the Oscars, with its billion plus viewing audience, taking more notice of non-Western films. We are all fed up with the narrow parochialism of most American films.

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Yet it seems to me that both the praise for the film and the suggestion that Hollywood is genuinely about to open its heart and wallet to other cultures is overblown. Many critics commented on the spectacle of the fighting, and the “feminization” of the martial arts film, as something wildly original. It isn’t. Both were done by King Hu’s 1969 film A Touch Of Zen, to my mind a much better film. It seems to me that a film set in another time, or an unfamiliar culture, should have elements of culture shock, something that makes us question our comfortably unexamined world views, inevitably constrained as they are by time and culture. The great films do this, at least to some extent – from Tarkovsky, to Kurosawa, to Bergman, even to Blade Runner and A Touch Of Zen. Even not great films like Remains of the Day.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon really doesn’t. On the contrary, I found myself wincing at the film’s glib California-isms. These are really just a reflection of the current liberal Hollywood world-view. The Chow Yun Fat character dies, punished for not expressing his emotions and letting it all hang out (the guy should have seen a therapist!) but has a death-scene conversion to romanticism. Several speeches (with stirring strings) were from the “you have to follow your dream, and your dream will come true” variety, which we’ve all seen in a million films, and is the closest to an ideology that Hollywood ever really gets.

This ideology is put out by the very few who have achieved their dream – and generally speaking they then pig out on drugs and starlets, and go paranoid behind their barbed wire dream houses. This “follow your dream” mentality is actually the more self-indulgent twin brother of the individualistic right-wing “get on your bike” and “there is no such thing as community” school of thought. The many thousands of Hollywood hopefuls who followed their dream and ended up strung out or in the billion-dollar porn industry are one of the by-products of this brainwashing. But frustrated, isolated hedonists make great consumers, so that’s all right then. Anyway, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has several varieties of this anachronistic liberalism, as out of place here as it might be in Shakespeare.

It also makes bad drama. I haven’t seen Chocolat, another Oscar-nominated film, because everything I’ve heard about how the Juliette Binoche character brings life-affirming sensuality to an “uptight” French village convinces me a much better drama would result if we could understand the sensibility of the village priest, and what his devotion to God and sexual restraint mean for him. If nothing else, there is at least some kind of argument a creative film-maker could make for repression. This, strangely enough, would be quite a radical move in the current climate.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s script was the result of a kind of ping-pong, bouncing to and fro between Mandarin and English, under the supervision of producer James Schamus. It shows. My guess is that, having made The Ice Storm, one of the best recent American films, and seen a much worse version of suburban dysfunction, American Beauty, collect Oscars and make lots of money, Ang Lee and Schamus thought a bit more saccharine was needed.

With more exotic-location, foreign-language movies being made by Hollywood, we’ll see Vietnam, Cuba, India all up there looking glossy, and with carefully applied dirt where necessary. Just don’t expect real insight into a world-view such as Islam, or any that is genuinely opposed to Hollywood’s. There is much talk of “the new globalism”. And why would that be? Could it be anything to do with the fact that Julia Roberts costs 20 million dollars, and you can make “international” films much cheaper, or buy the rights for peanuts? Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to me, is fusion film. Like fusion music or fusion cooking, it often doesn’t really satisfy.

p.s. Memo to any producers who may read this – got a great high concept follow-up movie featuring Tiger Woods, the golfer. The ultimate new global kind of guy. Called Burning Bright, perhaps. A low six-figure sum, and the idea is yours.

Peter Culshaw is an arts writer and composer. Recent activities include radio features on Alim Qasimov, the Azerbaijani singer, and Baaba Maal from Senegal. He lived and worked in Bollywood for a while, trained as an anthropologist, and is currently working on a Cuban Opera with Juan De Marcos Gonzalez.

Dreams, Pleasure and the Market

I hadn’t expected to enjoy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’d found The Matrix a real bore, and the hype around Yuen Wo-Ping’s action choreography left me fearing something similar. But Crouching Tiger… offers many of the pleasures granted in classic cinema by the musical, once, if not the purest form of cinema, quite possibly the purest form of representational cinema. There is, however, an inbuilt tension and thematic complexity to at least one important sub-set of that genre, the back-stage musical, where even competent but lesser directors inevitably generate a play between different levels of reality – on-stage and off-stage. There’s no equivalent in the action movie, however well choreographed.

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Moreover, heavy reliance on special effects as a movie’s main source of beauty and pleasure remains a worry, even with a movie as well acted as this. As the films of Jean Renoir or Nick Ray reveal, beauty and psychological truth can be found in the act of generating a performance.

Back in the sixties, when we started to realize that some entertainment movies, looked at closely, might reveal complex and serious themes lurking beneath or articulated through the pleasures they provided, these themes were usually found to resemble those found in other films by the same director. Thus some entertainment directors won the reputation of being an auteur, even though they may not have been fully aware of every aspect of the thematic and psychological concerns revealed by critical analysis. Now, auteur is a production category, used to describe a project involving a director who sets out to explore certain themes rather than stumbling across them as a result of the access to preconscious material that often results from the practice of a craft. On the film-philosophy website, Yuwei Lin reminds us that, throughout Ang Lee’s films, gender has always “been the main issue that Lee wants to express”, and that it is necessary for those who criticize the film as “shallow” to understand its “implicit meaning”. The modern auteur is seen as consciously appropriating a popular genre to articulate personal thematic concerns, and “implicit meanings” in popular cinema are more upfront, explicit, than before.

Also in the sixties, part of the attraction of the New Wave, and of the other national nouvelles vagues that followed, was their national and cultural specificity. Watching the films of Godard, or the great French classics, you might almost choke on the smoke of Gauloises, taste the bread and wine in your mouth. Even entertainment movies can lose much of their potential impact when, in search of a wider (i.e. an American) audience, a French story, say, is told in English. I tried to acquire the taste for olives as a result of the breakfast sequence in which Raimu confronts Fresnay in the Pagnol/Korda Marius! (A fine rather than great movie, but culturally specific to its roots, even in its use of dialect!). Imagine the same set built in a Hollywood studio and you have Joshua Logan’s Fanny (1960).

In relation to Japanese cinema, observers have argued that, as early as the 1950s, films were being made with an eye on international and festival success. Kurosawa’s Rashomon was often regarded in this light. Though later Ozu films such as Tokyo Story retain such formal aspects of his art as the refusal to obey the 180° rule when matching eyelines, and the use of the “pillow shot” sequence, there is some loss in formal complexity, in the interaction between the dramatic situation and its visual and spatial articulation. Whilst in Japan a reluctance to export even these persisted, on the grounds that they were “too Japanese”, so fervent an admirer of Ozu’s art as Noël Burch had little time for them. A similar case can be argued in relation to Mizoguchi, despite the world-wide admiration of such later films as Ugetsu Monogatari and Yang Kwei Fei, one of the earliest colour masterpieces of Hong Kong cinema. Though to the distant observation of the western eye such films remain very much the product of a radically different and culturally specific aesthetic, there had already been a toning down. Certain themes, too, may have a specific cultural relevance, particularly in a society with strict censorship.

Obviously, language is a part of cultural specificity. The international success of Crouching Tiger… needs to be balanced against the distressing news that, for African filmmakers from the Francophone former colonies, pressure to work in French rather than an African language is increasingly strong. Thus, with Cheik Oumar Sissoko’s new film Battu (France/Mali, 2000) which is set in Dakar, the problem is not so much that star Danny Glover is dubbed into French – the politician he plays most likely would speak French – but that the dispossessed are deprived of the right to speak their own languages, using, instead, the pidgin known as “petit nègre”. When, in the seventies, Sembene brought the same social group to the screen in Xala, not only did the beggars speak their own language, as they would in real life, but a major theme in the movie was precisely this issue of language. Now, the dispossessed still remain subject to the whims and ambitions of the powerful, yet this new account of them lacks the authenticity which should be generated by their speech. The film loses credibility with the audience with most experience of the problems it shows, the audience most in need of a chance to speak. One wishes the Asian film well, but wonders what may be lost when an Indian film makes a comparable bid for a place in the market.

James Leahy is a film historian and screenwriter.

Genre, Convention, and the Art of Cinema

Film, particularly genre cinema, carries with it the risk of convention and unintentional self-parody. Cinema, like all the arts, is the craft of reinvention; it is all too easy to drift into theft, deliberate or otherwise. This is more likely the more successful a genre is; the increasingly empty, by-the-books excess of western action cinema is the most overt example.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon overcomes the tyranny of genre and (if receipts, Academy Award nominations, and critical acclaim are evidence) the lazy parochialism of English-speaking audiences.

Director Ang Lee is not from Hong Kong, but his film’s spirit, most of its cast, and many of the principal creative personnel are. The Hong Kong action cinema “ghetto” is constantly being re-gentrified, from bemused toleration in the 70s to rabid subculture in the 80’s and 90s. The last decade has seen it falling for its own hype. It is well on the way to alienating the hardcore fans who initially championed its cause. John Woo’s painful marriage with Hollywood is just the most obvious of countless disaster stories.

Though many aficionados will see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as the first step towards homogenization, they are as mistaken as the self-satisfied western critics who praise it in ignorance of earlier Hong Kong cinema. Hong Kong film sprang from a hybrid culture, and even before the 1997 handover it was always voracious and catholic in its influences. John Woo’s love of Peckinpah and of musicals leaps to mind.

Lee has taken it further, achieving what others haven’t even tried. Not that they were obliged to: there is no requirement that a film must strive for international acceptance. However, if Asian cinema chooses to survive commercially in an increasingly global film market, it will want to expand its target audience without compromising its origins. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does just this.

In the past in mainstream cinema, innovative, adventurous genre films from directors such as Hawks, Ford, and even on occasion Welles, were relatively common. The thicker the family album grows, the more photos of Grandma there are to wade through. It is also difficult to avoid convention without veering into willful excess. Good genre that is good cinema is rare. Various directors have (often inadvertently) succeeded to varying degrees: Hitchcock, Lynch, Anthony Mann, (Ridley) Scott. Until now, perhaps the most obvious example was William Friedkin, holding down all horror conventions and bludgeoning them into submission with The Exorcist. Without underplaying the importance of the screenplay (in this case Writer/Producer James Schamus’ spot-on adaptation of Ang Lee’s summary of the Wang Du Lu story) I believe that the impetus here, and in the examples above, comes from the director. Their driving concerns are pacing, characterization, mise-en-scène, and the like, the concerns of filmmakers rather than genre directors.

So it is that our first encounter with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s heroic and respected warrior Li Mu Bai is fresh and unexpected. He is caught in an uncomfortable confrontation with an unrequited love during a political mission, a long way from the usual clunky, expositive action-hero introduction.

The action itself is not entirely unique, but the interpretation and presentation of often conventional elements is what counts here. Careful choices take the film into singular territory. The first “chase scene”, from its setting to its long takes, graceful camera movements, and totally unexpected musical accompaniment, is unlike any similar action sequence.

The five major action scenes are treated with a distinctive respect. They have a “character” arc which plays with expectations of length, pacing and mood. Li’s final confrontation with his nemesis gives the audience exactly what it wants, but is stunningly short and has an unexpected coda.

Expectations of Asian film are transcended; the film mixes Western and Eastern cinematic traditions perfectly: choosing, ignoring, discarding and mutating with symphonic grace.

As an example, the Chinese tradition of flying fantasy heroes is no stranger than Hercules’ strength, or Robin Hood’s skill in archery. Unfortunately, it is a sticking point for the unfamiliar viewer, who can perceive it as comic-bookish. Most Hong Kong films rightly choose not to deal with this potential barrier to Western audiences. However Lee seeks a larger stage, and introduces this unique world gently. The early “chick fight” eases into the concept; the characters don’t really fly, they merely leap very well. Increasingly spectacular set-pieces prepare us to accept the breathtakingly unbelievable treetop duel. It is one of the most visually beautiful and emotionally fraught scenes in action cinema.

This is no Peter Greenaway film, but neither is it a Dolph Lundgren movie. The subtext is there for those who want it, but it is unforced and unobtrusive. The “missing weapon” plot is merely a device to explore those who choose to “live by the sword” in Wu-xia (chivalric martial arts) tradition. The fascination here is not what will happen to these people, but rather how it will unfold, and what their reactions will be to the demands that duty, honour and love place on them.

Lee’s experimentation is also evident in his casting. No surprise that action regular and solid dramatic actress Michelle Yeoh shines as Yu Shu Lien. But the daring casting of Zhang Ziyi, previously only in one film (and at dance college!) as the pivot of the story is surpassed by the use of Chow Yun Fat. The most charismatic actor of his generation is powerfully subdued as Li Mu Bai, mythic swordsman and Yeoh’s love interest.

Familiar as Fat is in Hong Kong action, there are two things he isn’t known for; martial arts and fluency in Mandarin. Playing a master swordsman in a foreign language and still delivering a performance of self-assured dignity and memorable nobility is impressive. 

The film succeeds as cinema, as a commercial venture, as an action film, as a hand across the water between East and West, and as a simple, good-hearted romp. Unfortunately most cinephiles will be unable to let themselves enjoy it. The rest of us will see it again, drag our friends along and join in a brief prayer of thanks for Lee and his accomplices; master film-makers in a time of need.

Mark Angeli is a filmmaker, computer game designer and fiction writer living and working in Melbourne.

Catching the Trade Winds

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a wonderful demonstration of the irrelevance of gravity, but here in Shanghai we were very unimpressed by the story and the fight scenes. “Produced to meet foreigner tastes” is the most common opinion of it here. I hear the sequel is to be called Crouching Elephant, Hidden Duck." – May May is a Shanghai journalist.

Astaire is the most refined human expression of the musical, which is in turn the extreme manifestation of pure cinema: the lifelike presentation of human beings in magical, dreamlike, and imaginary situations. That might be thought to imply that Astaire’s dancing depends on illusion. Not so. He was the most technically exacting and ambitious of screen dancers, the most eager to perform in uninterrupted setups.” – David Thomson: A Biographical Dictionary of Film.

“The point of photography is not that it mimics definitively the experience of seeing an object, but that its relation to that object is a necessary rather than a contingent one. More tellingly: the object is necessary to the photograph… What concerns me is that we shall wake up one day and find that the assumption of a privileged relation between a photograph and its object, an assumption which has held good for 150 years and on which cine-actuality is founded, will have ceased to be operative… Let me ask my fiction colleagues bluntly: would you really be content to think your films differed from animated cartoons only in the degree of their verisimilitude?” – Dai Vaughan: The Broken Trust of the Image, Vertigo 4, Winter 1994/5.