Why America Loves an Asian Martial-Arts Flick

The lights dim and the curtain opens, revealing a gorgeous Chinese countryside. Suddenly, swordsmen fly through the sky and beautiful women exchange bone-crushing blows. This is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a sweeping Asian action film of the wu xia(martial chivalry) variety that has become a bona fide box-office success in a fairly xenophobic industry.

Director Ang Lee's Taiwanese-made, Mandarin-language film on Feb. 13 received 10 Academy Award nominations, the most ever for a foreign production, surpassing the seven racked up in 1998 by Italy's Life Is Beautiful.

A day before the Oscar nominations were unveiled, it was announced that Crouching Tiger's $60.3 million U.S. box office take had surpassed the $57.6 million domestic grosses for Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful to become North America's biggest foreign-language release ever. Sony Pictures Classics is rereleasing the film in 1,600 U.S. theaters on Friday.

Just five years ago, no one in Hollywood would have considered a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So why has Sony scored with this hidden dragon?

On the most immediate, visual level, there's Crouching Tiger's cast. With his undeniable good looks and charisma, Chow Yun Fat exploded from cult status to mainstream popularity in America with such films as The Corruptorand The Replacement Killers. In Crouching Tiger, he plays Li Mu Bai, a heroic swordsman who is giving up his killing ways. His counterpart, Yu Shu Lien, is played by Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies), whose beauty is equaled only by her eagerness to do her own stunts. How many American leading ladies can claim that? Not to be outdone, gorgeous newcomer Zhang Zi Yi shines as Jen. Her poignant portrayal of a warrior choosing between her independence and her duty is the crux of the film.

Another factor in Crouching Tiger's success is Lee, whose movies, such as Sense and Sensibility, have garnered multiple Oscar nominations. Educated at New York University, Taiwan-born Lee has shown his range in everything from dramas (The Ice Storm)to Westerns (Ride With the Devil). In his hands, Crouching Tiger is no mere fight film. Lee fluidly weaves two love stories—between Li and Yu and between Jen and her lover Lo (played by Chang Chen)—and combat scenes choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, master of The Matrix.

Then there is Sony's marketing machine, without which John and Jane Doe might never have heard of the film, let alone seen it. Sony effectively played up the stunning fights and strong critical acclaim, never mentioning the two words that usually make for a box-office bomb—"foreign" and "subtitles"—and without giving away key plot points.

But aside from these factors—fabulous cast and crew and strong studio backing—the film's success is also due to its unique take on the martial-arts genre. While Asian studios have churned out kung-fu films for decades, the films have rarely crossed the Pacific. That is until Bruce Lee arrived on the scene and single-handedly created the genre in America, first as Kato in The Green Hornet and then in Enter the Dragon (1973). But Lee's death in 1973 prevented the martial-arts genre from blossoming. Asian studios tried to replace him but always with dreadful results. The notoriously low production values, ridiculous stunts and poor dubbing were so lousy that Mike Myers' parody of the genre in Wayne's World 2—in a scene in which Wayne challenges his Chinese girlfriend's father to a hilarious, badly lip-synched duel—was hardly distinguishable from its execrable targets.

Asian action films have cookie-cutter scripts almost always based on the revenge story. In Jet Li's debut Shaolin Temple(1982), he learns the secrets of Shaolin kung fu to avenge his father's death. In Fearless Hyena (1979), the movie that cemented Jackie Chan's stardom in Hong Kong, Chan searches for his grandfather's killers. Not exactly sophisticated.

While Crouching Tiger includes a modest revenge subplot, it avoids the usual clichs and focuses on the romance. And unlike most testosterone-powered failures, Crouching Tiger features two female protagonists and a middle-aged, female villain.

Crouching Tiger further breaks the mold with its surreal fight scenes, blending wide-angle shots borrowed from the Asian aesthetic with Hollywood's fast-cut, closeup edits. (The latter technique effectively disguises Chow's lack of martial-arts training.) Fight choreographer Yuen organizes a wide array of styles, from high-flying kicks to dazzling swordplay. With a $15 million budget, Lee uses seamless computer-generated effects to enhance action that blows away any of the hand-to-hand combat in the $100 million Mission: Impossible 2.

Ultimately, Crouching Tiger fulfills something other martial-arts films do not: America's need for something more authentic than the "martial arts" crap produced by poseurs like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. With a romantic story and fierce female characters, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial-arts movie turned on its head and given a heart. It satisfies the yearning America never realized she had.

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