Can Sino-lingo pic beat the odds?

It has wowed filmgoers and critics worldwide for much of 2000. But is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” an across-the-board Oscar threat?

Oscar watchers seem evenly divided, with both supporters and naysayers drawing on Academy Awards history to make their case. And Sony Pictures Classics — gearing up for the highest-profile rollout in its history — is hoping it can capture more than a bit of the underdog heat that both Miramax and DreamWorks harnessed in recent races.

The Ang Lee-helmed “Crouching Tiger,” made for a reported $15 million, already has collected $21.2 million from several overseas territories. Though not in competition at Cannes, it drew plaudits there and went on to win the People’s Choice Award in Toronto.

Sony Classics, a champion of foreign-lingo pics, will release “Crouching Tiger” in Gotham on Dec. 8 and then platform it in other North American cities, with a goal of expanding to at least 300 runs on Jan. 12.

Included in the initial distribution plan are mainstream megaplexes in Gotham’s Times Square and L.A.’s Century City. Given the proven arthouse draw of Lee, who directed “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Wedding Banquet” and “The Ice Storm,” the film is sure to do its share of business in big cities. Stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat also could help the pic draw audiences with an appetite for martial arts action.

But opinions are sharply divided among veteran Oscar campaigners. Backers of the pic consider “Crouching Tiger” a beast waiting to pounce on a best picture nom, especially in this wide-open year. Skeptics insist the hurdle is too high for a film featuring dialogue in Mandarin and a sensibility rooted in “wu xia,” a staple Chinese mythology less familiar to U.S. auds.

Dueling factors

Tom Bernard, co-chief of Sony Classics, points out that large chunks of “Dances With Wolves” were subtitled. And he adds that auds in test screenings of “Crouching Tiger” didn’t identify language as a barrier.

In the end, though, this film’s Oscar fortunes seem to have a distinct “yin” and “yang” — loosely defined as the pro and the con.

The Yin: Thanks to a distinctive visual style, “Crouching Tiger” has a crucial advantage come kudos season: It stands apart from the pack.

Elaborate action sequences, choreographed by “Matrix” maestro Yuen Wo-Ping, transport auds to exotic environments, the forte of past Oscar successes ranging from “Fargo” to “Braveheart.”

Phil Groves, VP of film in the western U.S. for Loews Cineplex, booked “Crouching Tiger” at the non-arthouse Century Plaza theater in L.A. He says the pic “has the quality of taking me somewhere I’ve never been before. And I really responded to that.”

Adds Bernard: “You can’t prepare people for it. It’s the heart of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and the kung fu of ‘The Matrix.’ In this day and age, people are into ‘different.’ “

Another possible enticement is “Crouching Tiger’s” epic period aesthetic, rivaled among this year’s Oscar candidates only by “Gladiator.”

The Yang: In Oscar’s 72-year history, only six foreign-lingo pics have earned best picture noms: “The Grand Illusion, “Z,” “Cries and Whispers,” “Utvandrarna,” “The Postman” and “Life Is Beautiful.” Curiously, only two of those — “Z” and “Life Is Beautiful” — won Oscars for best foreign-language film. (The category wasn’t introduced until 1948.)

As a Chinese-lingo pic, “Crouching Tiger” may be not be as easy a sell to Academy voters as the sentimental, Western European fare that has recently made Oscar inroads.

While it does have extended action sequences with little or no dialogue, it also has talky stretches that make it impossible to forget it is a foreign film.

The key will likely be the reception among more mainstream auds — especially with Sony Classics steering the marketing, not the battle-tested campaigners at Miramax or DreamWorks. Bernard admits that “this is no ‘Tao of Steve,'” alluding to a recent quintessential Sony Classics title. “Crouching Tiger” is the highest-stakes release ever for the efficient art outfit known for turning modest profits in a perilous market segment.

If “Crouching Tiger” can attract even a fraction of the fan base for Jackie Chan or Jet Li (who initially was set to star in “Crouching Tiger”), it could return helmer Lee to the exalted Oscar status he enjoyed in 1996. His “Sense and Sensibility” snared seven Oscar noms that year. (Two years later, though, the critically praised “Ice Storm” was completely shut out.)

A Chinese setting, it should be noted, hasn’t proven a hindrance as long as a pic is in English. “The Last Emperor” won Oscar’s big prize in 1988, 50 years after “The Good Earth” garnered a best picture nom.

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