Letter to the Editor: ‘Tiger’ scribe Schamus responds to article

Responding to Derek Elley’s examination of the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” phenomenon (Variety, Feb 5-11), the film’s co-writer and co-executive producer James Schamus writes:

It would take far greater minds than mine to explain how Derek Elley, Variety‘s senior critic overseas, managed the feat of deluding himself — and his editors — into believing that Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has somehow been a miserable flop with Asian audiences, even as it is received in the West as a masterpiece (“Asia to ‘Tiger’: kung-fooey,” Variety, Feb. 5-11).

The film, which has grossed over $17 million-and-counting in the Asian marketplace (a fact Elley fails to report), would have been a happy and profitable success had it never even opened in a single Western market. So much for the factual basis of Elley’s bizarre diatribe.

And Elley forgot to mention that “Crouching” won Taiwan’s equivalent of the best picture Academy Award, shipped more DVDs than “M:I-2” in Singapore (setting another new record), and was last year’s top-grossing Chinese-language film from Thailand to Indonesia to Singapore to Malaysia to Korea to Taiwan.

But what are facts when one has a thesis to argue?

And what a thesis it is. According to the story, the “pic is a symbol of a huge culture clash.” Indeed, the film is a symbol — of the clash between patronizing Western guardians of Eastern culture and the new generation of Asian artists who are challenging the assumptions and power so-called experts like Elley have exercised over them in the past.

First, to be fair, it should be noted that the film was not a blockbuster in every Asian territory in which it has played, and performed modestly in some of those territories. But to leap from that assortment of facts to the fantasy that Elley dishes out requires some real mental gymnastics.

To take just one example, the film, according to Elley, “had no soul in Seoul … where it performed with no special distinction.” How does Elley back up this claim? By telling us that Kim Yeong-jun’s “Bichunmoo” racked up even more admissions.

Sorry, Derek, but “Crouching’s” $5 million gross in Korea would be the equivalent here in the U.S. of a “Traffic”-sized hit. But this is a fact Elley, of course, fails to mention.

The $2 million the film took in Hong Kong was “especially disappointing” (the fact that it was Columbia TriStar’s second-highest grossing film of the year there, right behind “Stuart Little,” doesn’t appear to have impressed Elley); and Japan “opened strongly” but fell off, etc. etc.

Of course, in both those markets the film performed at the zenith of Mandarin-language films.

Would we have liked more? Sure, who wouldn’t, but Elley’s rabid greed on our behalf should not take away from the film’s actual achievements.

But let’s get to the really mind-boggling part of Elley’s assault, wherein he tries to show how the film is a fraud, cooked up solely for consumption in the West.

The film’s record-breaking box office in places like Singapore and Taiwan is explained away as a result of those audiences having “become much more Western-oriented in their viewing patterns” — in other words, for Elley, they’re not really Asian anymore, and therefore don’t need to be accounted for.

Elley doesn’t stop there in his quest to prove that the film is a “cultural bastardization” that “real” Asians don’t like. The film’s set pieces are “shot in an immobile, very Western style” (I bet Edward Yang and Yasujiro Ozu would be surprised to hear that their style is “very Western”) and, according to Elley, there are literally “dozens” of (unnamed) “more superior works” in the genre. So much for scholarly argument.

Elley ascribes a great deal of the film’s popularity in Taiwan to Ang’s “homeboy” status where the “official local media” support him out of local pride.

Aside from the grotesque provincialism of this logic (I’m sure American filmmakers would be thrilled to hear that they get the unthinking support of their “local” critics because they’re “homeboys”), one doesn’t see much of the homeboy effect on the films of the dozens of other local filmmakers who have had far less success at home than Ang.

Elley has one final damning argument against Ang, though: Ang Lee, it seems, really isn’t Asian at all, he’s “an international filmmaker who just happens to have been born and raised in Taiwan.”

I’m sure Ang and all of Asia must be thankful to Elley for sorting the “real” Asians (those who didn’t like “Crouching Tiger”) from the fake ones (the millions who enjoyed it, as well as the man who made it).

In the meantime, maybe the rest of us should just do what comes naturally: gape in awe at Elley’s chauvinism, and pray that some day he’ll allow a touch of reality to enter his own peculiar zeitgeist. For the record, “Crouching Tiger” is a true Asian success story, for which film lovers everywhere can be grateful.

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