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For all its pan-Asian star power, Crouching Tiger depends on Jen--on Zhang, in only her second film. The actress says she labored under "a pressure not to disappoint the director. I felt I was a mouse and Ang Lee a lion." When first seen, Jen seems lovely but unformed, a dreamy adventuress, a spoiled rich girl with a skill to match her will. Gradually, though, Jen (or, rather, Zhang) reveals a more toxic, intoxicating beauty. Will she become a fearless heroine or a ferocious killer? Zhang, surely, is guilty of one crime: she steals the film. "She allows the audience to pour themselves into her imagination," Lee says. "It's not really her in the movie, it's you. That's beyond acting. It's cinematic charisma."
Before shooting, Zhang and her young screen lover Chang worked with an acting coach. Chow and Yeoh crammed to speak Mandarin. And throughout, Lee was learning the limitations in the laws of stunt physics from the martial master Yuen. Movies are an education on the fly, with pop quizzes every moment. How apt, then, that the theme of Crouching Tiger should be teaching. In this war of the generations, the adults are as eager to instruct the young as the kids are to rebel against authority. In life as in martial arts, knowledge is power. And only the most powerful, like Chow's Mubai, can share it. He hopes to share it with Jen. Teaching this bright, willful girl is as close as he will come to fatherhood--even if the job carries fatal risks.
A film director is the ultimate father figure, doling out responsibility, praise and censure. On Crouching Tiger, Lee, who secured his early fame with the so-called Father Knows Best trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman), was a father-teacher to Zhang the budding actress, to Yeoh the tentative Mandarin student, to Chow the man on the flying bamboo. And behind Lee was another family figure--the young Ang, mesmerized by tales of great fighters and images of impossible physical grace.
However much the middle-aged Ang Lee suffered in making this exquisite film, he should take a little pleasure in knowing that he helped realize the young Ang Lee's dream.