As Cannes 2000 split furiously last May, Gore-Bush fashion, over the worth of Dancer in the Dark, practically everyone found common ground in appreciation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in its out-of-competition world premiere. From special-effects geeks to the snobbiest of high-art critics, all were captivated by Ang Lee's grand entertainment, with its slides into the spiritual and philosophical amidst the most gloriously inventive sky-hopping, sword-and-sorcery battle scenes, these involving two great iconic presences of Hong Kong cinema, Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh.
"Cannes is both the most artistic and gaudy place I've been to," the Taiwan-born, NYU-trained Lee explained. "My screenings here of Eat Drink Man Woman and Ice Storm were great ones. It's important to come to Cannes and face the world."
Ang is famous for reinventing himself at each recent film, moving with consummate agility from Jane Austen's period England (his masterly Sense and Sensibility) to suburban Connecticut (The Ice Storm) to the Civil War-era West (Ride with the Devil). "It was time to make a change to another genre. Martial arts is like dancing. It has nothing to do with how to beat someone up. It's pure cinema, about the best place to position the camera.
"From my years of practicing tai chi, I wanted something similar, a softer style than in most martial arts movies. But my choreographer told me that it can get boring without some hitting." The very soft-spoken Ang smiled, as he described Crouching Tiger as "a kick-butt movie."
And a high-tech one. "400 shots are computerized, which allows speed variations and wire removals." Translated: Ang's actors could be flown high through the air on harnesses hitched to thick, visible wires, which then, because he had the budget to afford the lab work, were digitally edited out. "Most Chinese films use thin wires so you can't see them, which risks actors' lives on a daily basis. Or they try to put vaseline on the lens, or use smokescreens, to hide the wires."
Michelle Yeoh, probably the most famous action actress in the world (Tai Chi Master, Supercop, Tomorrow Never Dies), talked about the special schooling for Crouching Tiger:
"Ang brought in the best tai chi masters. We were in a boot camp, and I trained like a newcomer. I knew how to use my right hand, but never before my left one! But what was most different was the emotional element. Martial arts usually overtake everything else. But every scene had a different emotion: I'm cool here, I'm angry here. The left brain, the right brain.
"I met Ang five years ago, when I had a retrospective in New York. I knew all his films, and I was flabbergasted when he came with his wife. He was so human, very humble. He talked to me again after Ride with the Devil and I could see this movie was his dream, in his mind and heart. I wanted to be part of it. We need someone who has a completely new take on martial arts. I knew Ang could pull it off."
So did producer-screenwriter, James Schamus, who has co-scripted almost all of Ang's movies. The tweedy, ever-bow-tied Schamus, also an intellectually-minded film professor at Columbia University and co-founder of Good Machine, explained, "I'm along for the ride. My job with Ang is to keep his feet on the ground. There's a mixture of incredible modesty and insane hybris which he brings to every set.
"Writing this script was like going into another world, like translating from Portugese to Spanish, from Saturn to Mars. My first draft was all about plot, and what was not important yet was the aroma of Chinese culture. The Chinese crew who read it were very polite, but the script to them was insane! The hardest thing later were the lyrics for songs and writing the English subtitles. There are so many layers of poetry in the story, 5,000 years of it, that simply are not accessible to westerners.
"How did I write the action scenes? It was simple: 'They fight.'"
Crouching Tiger's most fanciful action episode was conceived by Schamus as a tribute to an acrobatic battle in King Hu's legendary A Touch of Zen. "The original was very avant-garde, pre-wire work, using a trampoline! Ang said, 'Yes, an homage, let's do it, but let's do it on top of a bamboo forest.' It took us three weeks, and Chow was such a trooper, 80 feet up where he sails down. There were four wire crews working at once, or else he would have sailed into a tree and had his back broken."
The movie is based on the fourth part of a five-part, same-titled Chinese novel by Wang Du Lu. "I was a fan of this novelist growing up in Taiwan," said Ang. "It was in forbidden Chinese, a male fantasy genre with its heart in pulp fiction, kind of like James Bond but with a righteous moral code, and the hero wins the girls. My version is different: women carry the movie, which gives it an emotional, psychological reality. And Chow has to deal with things in a midlife crisis kind of way. I think that's new.
"Young Jen, played by Zhang Ziyi, is the crouching tiger: a hidden, potent force. Even though we have sexy, racy scenes, the characters are very repressed. They can kick ass all they want, when they come to desire, it's a mystery. A hidden dragon."