Lee’s work reaching mainstream auds

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Ang Lee Filmography

Mention Ang Lee these days, and you’re likely get nods of recognition from practically every quarter. But it wasn’t that long ago that the helmer was familiar mostly to film connoisseurs.

At first, cineastes knew him as a keen observer of Taiwanese and Chinese-American customs. In such pics as “Pushing Hands,” “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman,” Lee examined a world largely alien to Americans.

Then came what might be termed Lee’s Merchant Ivory period as he trained his observational powers on cultures less familiar to him.

In the historical films “Sense and Sensibility” (19th-century England), “The Ice Storm” (1970s America) and “Ride With the Devil,” (Civil War America), the director revealed that his sharp eye for detail was not limited to the Asian experience.

Oscar nommed

Now, with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” breaking all kinds of B.O. records, Lee appears to be entering a populist phase. Suddenly, the director’s name is on everyone’s lips, something made inevitable by the whopping 10 Oscar noms that “Crouching Tiger” garnered last month, including a director nom for Lee.

In many ways, the film represents a break with Lee’s past efforts. After all, its chopsocky content isn’t exactly what one expects from a director who excels at intense two-character dialogue scenes. And yet there’s a grace to “Crouching Tiger” that lifts it far beyond its genre.

As Lee told the Los Angeles Times in November: “There’s a degree of realism to it. It doesn’t go too crazy, too out of bounds.”

The film breaks from traditional martial arts pics in other ways, too.

“It has outstanding female characters,” Lee noted. “And it has a tragic ending, both of which are unusual.”

One of the things that has most surprised Lee about “Crouching Tiger” is how differently Western and Eastern auds greeted the film. The director expected the pic to do well in China, where it was filmed, and not so well outside Asia.

“I dreamed that the Chinese audience would embrace it,” Lee recalled. In fact, the film has not fared as well there as elsewhere. By contrast, Lee expected the film to have little impact in the U.S.

“I think you only get three times to flop and, frankly, I thought this one would be the third one,” Lee said. (The previous poor performers were “The Ice Storm” and “Ride With the Devil.”)

Rising in the charts

But the marketplace can confound, and it did in this case. “Crouching Tiger” has become the most lucrative foreign film ever in North America, taking in over $62 million and eclipsing the previous record holder, Roberto Begnini’s “Life Is Beautiful,” which earned $55 million. Worldwide, “Crouching Tiger” has accrued over $100 million to date.

And it’s possible that Lee’s film will show up Begnini’s in another way. Like “Life Is Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger” is nominated for best picture, as well as for best foreign film. No foreign-language film has even seized the best-picture honor, but just being nominated puts Lee in the company of Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman and Costa-Gavras.

None of this, however, seems to have impressed Asian audiences. Like many Asians, Lee grew up with an affection for martial-arts pics. Indeed, he acknowledges many of those films as inspiration. Yet he admits that “Crouching Tiger” breaks with, as well embraces, that tradition.

“The first fight does not ensue until 15 minutes into the movie,” Lee told England’s Guardian newspaper. “To a Chinese audience, it must feel like 30 minutes. ‘Are we gonna see a fight or what?’ Usually with this genre, the first thing that happens is a good fight sequence to show that you’re in good hands. So we broke with that rule.”

It’s not insignificant that Lee has described “Crouching Tiger” as “a romantic drama,” linking it in some ways to “Sense and Sensibility.”

And yet any viewer can see that the film is patently part of a long tradition of so-called wuxia pian, or “warrior films.”

The film’s inspiration is a 1920s novel by one Wang Du-Lu, which appealed to Lee because, as he told the L.A. Weekly’s John Anderson, “I like strong women.”

But the movie’s defining characteristic isn’t its subject matter or its psychological underpinnings. Instead, what most lingers in the minds of audiences is the film’s balletic martial-arts choreography. Yuen Woo-Ping, a prolific Chinese director best known in the West for staging the fight scenes in “The Matrix,” choreographed those scenes in “Crouching Tiger,” but it was Lee who envisioned them.

Somewhat perversely, those scenes may be what mainstream audiences most remember Lee for. If so, they’ll probably be confounded by his next efforts, which bear little resemblance to “Crouching Tiger.” Lee is already working on scripts for an adaptation of “The Hulk” and biopic about Harry Houdini.

In his interview with the Guardian, Lee alluded to mixed feelings about acclaim.

“I don’t know why I’m embarrassed about success,” he said. Given the enthusiasm for “Crouching Tiger” and the possible raft of Oscars it may win, Lee had better get used to public recognition. All the crouching in the world isn’t likely to keep him hidden anymore.

Lee Filmography*

Year Film Domestic B.O.
2000 Crouching Tiger..
(Sony Classic)

82
1999 Ride With the Devil (USA) .6

1997 The Ice Storm
(Fox Searchlight)
8
1995 Sense and Sensibility (Sony) 43
1995 Pushing Hands (Miramax) .1
1994 Eat Drink Man Woman (Goldwyn) 7
1993 The Wedding Banquet (Goldwyn) 7
Box Office in $millions through Feb. 25
* selected films

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