Year of the TIger

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From the beginning, the film seemed cursed. "We started shooting in the Gobi Desert," recalls director Ang Lee, dimpled but unsmiling. "That night the crew got lost in the desert until 7 a.m. We finally got going, and after the second shot, a sandstorm came in." Could things get worse? Ask producer Bill Kong. "The Gobi is the hottest, dryest place on earth," he says. "So each morning we lit incense for good luck. Well, we had dreadful luck-it rained sheets, nonstop, ruining our schedule. After a while one of the local people came around and said the gods must be smiling on us. We asked why. 'Because you burned the incense,' he said. 'We burn the incense when we want it to rain.'"

With good or bad luck, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would have pro-vided a stern challenge. Consider these factors: a $15 million action movie that was also to be a poignant, tragic romance; a fight choreographer, Yuen Wo-ping, who had won international acclaim for his work on The Matrix and was bound to tangle with the soft-spoken, hard-to-budge Lee; a top-flight all-Asian cast featuring Chow Yun Fat (Hong Kong), Michelle Yeoh (Malaysia), Zhang Ziyi (Beijing) and Chang Chen (Taiwan). Only one of the stars-Zhang, then a 19-year-old ingenue-spoke anything like the classical mainland Mandarin that Lee demanded.

At least these difficulties were built into the scenario. What no one expected was that Yeoh would injure her knee and need a month's rehab in the U.S., or that the whole ordeal would be so damned exhausting. "We shot around the clock with two teams," says Lee, 46. "I didn't take one break in eight months, not even for half a day. I was miserable-I just didn't have the extra energy to be happy. Near the end, I could hardly breathe. I thought I was about to have a stroke."

As the sage said, dying is easy, filmmaking is hard. But everyone was so serious on Crouching Tiger because Lee, who made his reputation with adult dramas of manners like The Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility, had a child inside screaming to get out. He wanted to pay homage to his lifelong ardor for martial-arts novels and pictures. He had made beautiful films; now he would bend his considerable artistry to make, dammit, a movie. The sad story has a happy ending. All that agony has produced exactly what Lee hoped to create-a blending of Eastern physical dexterity and Western intensity of performance. High art meets high spirits on the trampoline of an elaborate plot. Crouching Tiger is contemplative, and it kicks ass. Or put it this way: it's a powerful film and a terrific movie.

Based on part of a Wang Du Lu novel from the 1930s, the script by James Schamus, Wang Huiling and Tsai Kuojung concerns the theft of a sword, the Green Destiny. This is the holy weapon of Li Mubai (Chow), a legendary warrior looking for peace in his later days. He entrusts the sword to Yu Shulien (Yeoh), a gifted martial artist with whom he shares an unspoken love. Then Jen (Zhang), daughter of a political bigwig, arrives, and everything tips off-balance. The wiser, more cautious adults sense Jen's avidity for rare and dangerous toys like the Green Destiny. They are also suspicious of her governess (Cheng Peipei), who bears a resemblance to the ruthless killer Jade Fox. Then one night the sword disappears. And everyone springs into frantic, purposeful motion.

In Crouching Tiger, that motion has its own poetry, for these semi-gods and demi-devils possess a buoyancy to match their gravity. The film's first action scene, with Shulien chasing the sword's thief (who, we soon learn, is Jen), sets the tone and the rules. The two fight hand-to-hand and foot-to-foot. Jen suddenly floats up, as if on the helium of her young arrogance, and canters up and down the courtyard walls as if they were velvet carpets, with Shulien in urgent pursuit.

Everywhere in the world-in Asia, during the film's original commercial run, and at the Cannes, Toronto and New York City film festivals-audiences have had the same response to Crouching Tiger-rapture. They gasp with glee as Jen and Jade Fox soar into the night. They mist up at the friendship of Mubai and Shulien, two brave warriors who haven't quite the courage to say I love you. They happily accept the film's 20-minute detour to the Gobi, where Jen meets her bandit beau Lo (Chang). At the end, they sob farewell to an old warrior who gives a lovely valediction.

The movie has its roots in Asian action movies of around 30 years ago. It quotes famous fight scenes from two films by the action master King Hu: Come Drink with Me, in which the young, fierce Cheng Peipei defeats an inn full of martial studs, and A Touch of Zen, with two knights doing battle in a grove of bamboo trees. Lee had the inspired-or crackpot-idea of staging the fight between Mubai and Jen on the trees' branches, 20 m in the air. "I'd fantasized about this since boyhood," Lee says, "but a lot of my ideas weren't feasible or didn't look good. Nobody, including Yuen, wanted to do the tree scene, for a simple reason: it's almost impossible. The first three days of shooting were a complete waste. There were 20 or 30 guys below the actors trying to make them float. It was just chaotic." Finally it worked-a scene so buoyant that the audience soars along with the stars.

Lee is a visionary and a perfectionist; he demands more than his colleagues can freely give. For the dapper, amiable Chow-Hong Kong cinema's top tough guy before he became Jodie Foster's regal pupil in Anna and the King-the experience was often "awful. The first day I had to do 28 takes just because of the language. That's never happened before in my life." Lee drove Yeoh, whose family's language is English, nearly to tears with his insistence on precise speech. But the beautiful action star thinks it was worth the trouble. "I've been waiting 15 years to work with this guy," she says. "He's gentle and very emotional. During a sad scene at the end of the film, he kept telling me to do different things, and when he'd come over I'd see he was red-eyed, teary. He gets so completely involved. And when he says, 'Good take' after a shot, he really means it."

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.

Reported by Stephen Short/Hong Kong