Call it Marketing: Impossible. Ever since Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had its stellar Cannes Film Festival debut, industry watchers have been abuzz about whether its U.S. distributor Sony Pictures Classics would be able to accomplish an unheard of feat: sell the Mandarin language martial arts romance to America’s subtitle – phobic mainstream audiences.
Earlier this month, the gamble paid off, and Lee’s film earned 10 Oscar nominations — including Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Director — and became the top grossing subtitled movie in U.S. history (Its $81.6 million and counting box office take topped the previous record holder, ”Life Is Beautiful.”)
Yet ”Tiger”’s broad appeal has also sparked a controversy that could affect its Oscar chances. Some critics complain that the film is merely a watered down Hollywoodization of the martial arts genre that panders to U.S. pocketbooks. Lee, a New York University film school graduate who won a Golden Globe last month for Best Director, tells EW.com that while he had both American and Chinese audiences in mind when he made ”Tiger,” his Taiwanese compatriots were always his first concern.
Was ”Crouching Tiger” designed to be a hit in America?
The audience I was concerned with pleasing the most was the Taiwanese audience. That’s the audience I know the best. I needed it to be a hit with the Chinese public, because of the size of the budget [about $15 million]. I hoped that the rest of the money would come from the art houses in the U.S. and Europe.
You earned an Oscar nomination for directing ”Sense and Sensibility.” What were your hopes for this movie?
I didn’t calculate that it would be so popular in the West. Art houses in the West, blockbuster in the East, that’s what I originally in mind. That’s how it was with my other Chinese language films [”The Wedding Banquet,” ”Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” ”Pushing Hands.”] That’s I’m used to.
Was it tough to have both Chinese and American writers working on ”Tiger”’s screenplay?
It took months and months. James Schamus couldn’t read Wang Dulu’s book because it’s in Mandarin. We [Lee plus two Chinese scribes Wang Hui-ling and Tsai Kuo Jung] translated it and sent it to him, then Schamus rewrote it. After that, we took it back to the Chinese writers for revisions. Then we translated it again for James. He would make suggestions, and we would say, ”But the Chinese don’t really talk like that. We like the idea but how can we say that in Chinese?” Then we would have to rewrite it again.
Were there parts of the film that required more explanation for American audiences?
Of course. We couldn’t take any of the basic aspects of the genre for granted. We had to explain why the ingenue, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), wants to run away from traditional marriage, for example. We also made the romance between Jen and Lo more explicit than we would have for just a Taiwanese audience. Verbalizing affection has never really been a Chinese thing.
Some martial arts fans complain that ”Tiger” differs too much from Hong Kong movies like Jackie Chan’s ”Drunken Master” and Jet Li’s ”Once Upon a Time in China.” Is that intentional?
Recent Hong Kong martial arts films emphasize fighting — which is fantastic, but then there’s not much room left for character or anything else. I think ”Crouching Tiger” is closer to what Taiwanese think the real meaning of martial arts is.
And what is that?
It’s an emotional tool — about sense and sensibility, about righteousness about emotional entanglement. It’s storytelling, heart wrenching. These things have been gradually diluted in the Hong Kong film industry, which is flashy, fast paced, very commercialized — the industry’s moved away from Chinese culture. It’s more of a cult.
What makes your vision of Chinese culture different?
In Taiwan, education and upbringing are still very traditional, more so than in the People’s Republic or Hong Kong. We still kow tow; we’re more old fashioned. We have romanticized feelings about mainland China, the culture of China. That’s reflected in the film.
You’ve said that as a child you learned about mainland China and Chinese culture, in part, through watching martial arts films.
Right, I watched martial arts movies and thought, ”That’s what China is.” But, who knows? Maybe they made it up. Perhaps that’s the Chinese we want to be, instead of who we really are.