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''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' could become the year's breakout indie

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Chow Yun-Fat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has enough early release adrenaline to become the year’s biggest hit art film. But if that’s going to happen, distributor Sony Pictures Classics has to get U.S. audiences to forget one big thing: It’s not about Americans. It’s not even in English — although audiences in New York and Los Angeles, where ”Tiger”’s now playing, don’t seem to mind: The Mandarin language action movie’s grossed $2 million in just two weeks. On Dec. 22, ”Tiger” will open on more than 100 screens nationwide, and if all goes well, Sony will take it up to 800 plus next month. ”The real vision is to break out of the art houses,” director Ang Lee (”Ice Storm,” ”Sense and Sensibility”) tells EW.com. ”That’s the challenge, the next level.”

”Tiger”’s gravity defying fight scenes (choreographed by ”The Matrix”’s Yuen Wo Ping) brought audiences to their feet when the film premiered at Cannes last April. Stellar performances by Michelle Yeoh (”Tomorrow Never Dies”) and Chow Yun Fat (”The Replacement Killers”) helped it win the People’s Choice Award — and Academy Award buzz — at the Toronto International Film Festival. And this past weekend, Los Angeles film critics awarded ”Tiger” their Best Picture prize — the first time the honor has gone to a foreign language film. ”This is the biggest film in our history,” says Michael Barker, copresident of Sony Classics.

But there’s a catch: subtitles. The highest grossing subtitled Asian import is the Japanese romantic comedy ”Shall We Dance,” which earned just $9.5 million for Miramax in 1997. While the $12 million budgeted ”Tiger” is sure to make money off the art house crowd, it’s going to be tough to command the multiplexes in middle America, according to Robert Bucksbaum of box office tracking firm Reel Source. ”[Middle Americans] want to see Americans and they want to see Americans kicking butt; it’s as simple as that,” he says.

Though Yeoh and Chow both have substantial followings here (via video releases of their Hong Kong action hits), they are most familiar to multiplex audiences for their pairings with white actors in U.S. action movies: Chow starred opposite Mark Wahlberg in ”The Corruptor,” while Yeoh was a formidable Bond Girl opposite Pierce Brosnan.

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