'Pushing Hands' grabs the heart

October 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

It is becoming slowly clear that to the great actor-director collaborations of the world -- Wayne and Ford, De Niro and Scorsese, Mifune and Kurosawa, Cooper and Capra -- must be added another twosome, Lee and Lung.

That's Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director of "The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman" and now "Pushing Hands," and Sihung Lung, the star of those three movies. It's a rich and passionate relationship, mirroring in some ways the conflicting passions of duty and emotion between adult child and father, which is the true subject of the trilogy.

"Pushing Hands," which has just reached the Charles and general American distribution, happens not to be the last, but the first. It was made in 1992 and is only arriving on the strength of the success of the last two. But in many ways it is the best.

Or put it this way: It is the most accessible, at least to me. Set in the United States, it views some traditional Chinese cultural issues through an American prism, but it is so knowing and wise and humanistic in its evocations it quickly comes to transcend cultural identities.

The location is a nice house in the New York suburbs where Alex Chu struggles painfully with the two halves of his life, his 'N American wife (Deb Snyder) and his Chinese father (Lung). A highly-paid Ph.D in computer sciences, Alex appears at last to have created a problem beyond solution. His father, a tai chi master, has recently retired and emigrated from Peking. His wife is about to have a novel published. Thus these two exemplars of worlds a universe apart share the otherwise empty house every day.

It isn't working. Martha wants a bigger house, more room, a review in The Times, and she'll get none of them. Mr. Chu wants to be in China, not in this strange place where no one speaks the language or cares, where his grandchild is being raised peculiarly. And he won't get that either. What is, is, and these people must learn to accept somehow, or die.

The two are instantly recognizeable. Martha is hyper-intelligent, hyper-fragile, and now uncertain as she faces, in the visage of her newly arrived father in law, questions about her husband's cultural heritage, and it's a shame that Snyder isn't a better actress. The one weak link in the cast, she seems a little forced, as if the actress were trying to do an impression of Erica Jong.

As for the old man, Lung is magnificent: An ascetic who hides his great pain (a murdered wife, a life of terrible hardship) behind a mask of stoicism, losing himself in the elaborate movements that appear to be his mooring in reality -- a school of tai chi known as "pushing hands," of which he was the national champion. He struggles himself mightily with the twin demons of pride and loneliness.

Where cultures touch, sparks fly, feelings get trampled. The movie watches the slow process by which these people who know they ought to love, and know that love is owed the other, struggle to find it to give, without first surrendering to irritation, anger and violence. I love Ang's toughness.

"Pushing Hands" is about families falling apart and somehow coming together again. The point it makes is a significant one: nothing's easy. You've got to do the work. It's a brilliant film.

'Pushing Hands'

Starring Sihung Lung and Bo Z. Wang

Directed by Ang Lee

Released by CFP Distribution

Unrated

*** 1/2

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