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Cutting-Edge Drama: Michelle Yeoh cuts a wide swath through Ang Lee's epic 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.'

Enter the Dragon

Soft-spoken director Ang Lee comes out swinging with 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

By Nicole McEwan

MENTION ANG LEE'S name to your average cineast, and the words eclectic and outsider will likely dominate the conversation. Eclectic because Lee has been a cultural vagabond, moving gracefully from modern-day New York in The Wedding Banquet to Taipei in Eat Drink Man Woman, from Victorian England in Sense And Sensibility to 1970s New England in The Ice Storm.

Perhaps the most radical shift is his latest: he's gone from Civil War-era Missouri in Ride With the Devil to Qing dynasty China in his new film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which opens Dec. 22.

The outsider label sticks because Lee is not afraid to tackle material far removed from his own experience. In a field crowded with navel-gazers, Lee displays a refreshing eagerness to explore the world around him.

Yet he is magnetically drawn to the same thematic terrain. A closer look at his filmography reveals that no matter the setting, Lee's signature theme--"social obligation versus personal freedom in a changing time"--remains intact. Fortunately, it's a core dynamic that travels as well as he does.

IN A CLUTTERED conference room in Madison Avenue's Sony Building, the soft-spoken director speaks about his inspirations, his unusual point of view, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, his most ambitious film to date.

Dressed in khakis and a soft gray cardigan, Lee exhibits a casual, elegant style and earnest aura that is not unlike that of a university professor--exactly the profession his educator father once chose for him.

Then came the rebellion that landed the Taiwanese dreamer in America, where he studied drama before finding himself and his career at NYU's film school.

Indeed, it was his dad's "imposing shadow" that inspired Lee's "Father Knows Best Trilogy," though at the time, Lee says he was unable to see the parallels between his staunchly traditional Chinese father and the imperious, domineering paterfamilias of films like Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.

At 46, Lee is far more self-aware. Tiger, he admits, was an outlet to exercise his mid-40s demons. For the average man, a midlife crisis entails quitting a job, having an affair or buying the European sports car of teenage dreams. For Lee, that mythic rite of passage compelled him to make a kung fu movie.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Lee doing kung fu is a lot like Kubrick doing horror. Just as The Shining turned that genre on its ear by devoting substantial time to backstory and character development, Lee's epic treatment--featuring international stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh--gives the Chinese "Wuxia" drama a decidedly human element. (Wuxia loosely translated, means "martial arts chivalry." Its heroes share the same quasi-existential path as Old West gunslingers and Japanese Samurai.)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon maintains the common Wuxia themes of power, romance and mortality and also incorporates its trademark fantasy aspects. Yet the film still bears Lee's undeniable imprint--its richly drawn heroes and heroines are people we can both relate to and care about.

Still, such a decidedly populist film is a risky endeavor for someone who has carefully built an audience by not playing to the masses. Well aware of his reputation as a "serious" director, Lee admits that with Tiger the fear of failure doubled. "I could lose my audience, or worse, lose the audience for this genre," he says.

Lee says "worse" because in his heart of hearts he feels that his entire body of work has been preparation for Tiger. Though one would scarcely guess it from his project choices, Lee had been a lifelong devotee of martial arts epics. Though typically classified as B-movies in the states, martial arts direction is a very specific, respected skill in filmmaking, says Lee.

"These days only highly successful choreographers or career acrobats take it on," he explains. "They work for the Beijing Opera for 30 years, then they get behind the camera and do wonders. People like me don't really have the right." But directing Ride With the Devil convinced Lee that he was ready to make the leap.

Though the genre may takes immense technical prowess to mount, Lee admits that the films themselves are often shamelessly cheesy. After Tiger's arduous five-month shoot, he thinks he knows why.

"It's not only that the choreographer doesn't care," he says. "It's that doing action to that standard is so enormously draining. You use up 80 percent of your resources--shooting time, money and energy--just on that aspect."

Almost by default, the rest becomes filler. "And really, that's all people expect," Lee says. "You find that the audiences are conditioned so that they're just waiting for the next big sequence."

Of course, Tiger delivers far more than that. Among the most critically acclaimed films of the year, the genre-bender boasts fine acting, exhilarating "wire-fu" action sequences by Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix), and two couples whose romantic destinies are intertwined. Ultimately, the sweeping romance was the angle Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus used to sell the film, calling it Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.

Perhaps Tiger's most surprising quality is its distinctly feminist bent. Not only do women wield swords and fly--they kick ass Bruce Lee-style, toppling opponents without breaking a sweat.

It's a bit of a stretch from his boyhood fantasies, the filmmaker admits with a laugh. "Those," says Lee "were all about gaining the biggest power and winning the most girls in the shortest period of time without breaking any moral code."

THREE DECADES LATER, Lee has learned to appreciate, even rely on his feminine side. "In truth," he says, "women characters seem to speak for me. Only tough women." Which seem to be the only kind found in Schamus' female-centric scripts.

Add in Lee's need to make his Wuxia epic distinctly his own. "Taking a male genre from a male-dominated society and following a women's emotional journey makes it more exciting," Lee says. "Because of my wife, I have a big heart for strong women. Tough, practical and intense."

In this way, it seems, Lee has also been sneakily consistent. "Men never make decisions in my movies," he observes. "They try to please everyone else. Women have the true power. So when they have to confront their inner vulnerability it just breaks my heart."

Tiger was special to Lee in another important way. It is the first film he has shot in China, his ancestral homeland. As a small boy, Lee was often enthralled by his mother's sentimental stories and the Chinese sword-fighting adventures and soapy melodramas he watched as a child.

Sadly, the director's first trip back home proved hugely disappointing. His mother's Hong Kong was gone. The only example of classical Chinese style remaining was the palace. Even worse were the Taiwanese pop songs that filled the air.

Through Tiger, Lee got to rebuild his dream of old China. Released there earlier this year, the martial arts epic has become a smash hit. Amazingly, Lee's rejection of his own culture paved the way for him to give it back to others. Among Ang Lee's films it is his father's favorite. Noting the inescapable irony, Lee believes that his Chinese audience misses that city more than he does.

"In some ways that really is their hidden dragon," he says, "the repressed desire that haunts them every day."

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (PG-13; 120 min.), directed by Ang Lee, written by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus and Kuo Jung Tsai, based on the book by Du Lu Wang, photographed by Peter Pau and starring Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, opens Friday at the Camera One and 3 in San Jose and the Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto.

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From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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