On a balmy night in my native Singapore on a recent vacation, I was discussing movies with my Asian friends when I gushed about wanting to see Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
The response was instantaneous -- there was a moment of silence followed by a round of lip-curling, eye-rolling and sneers.
"But, but ..." I sputtered, genuinely bewildered. "The critics in America have been raving about it."
After a little more eye-rolling, my friend Kevin finally spat out: "That movie is so ridiculous! Of course the Americans love it. They don't know any better."
Lee's epic film exploring the themes of suppressed love, honor, valor and good vs. evil against the breathtaking backdrop of ancient China has garnered nothing short of stellar reviews from almost every critic in America. Roger Ebert labeled it "the most exhilarating martial arts movie I have seen." The New York Times called it "heady and delirious," and The Sun's own Chris Kaltenbach said it was a "visual feast."
And yet my friends in Asia -- only the birthplace of the martial arts genre in film -- scoff at the movie? After watching "Crouching Tiger" myself, though, it's not hard to see why.
Tradition of warrior stories
Lee's film has a grandly mythical story line that follows the rich tradition of Chinese Wuxia stories. Wuxia, roughly translated, means martial arts warrior or hero, and for hundreds of years in China, stories have been written and told about these noblemen who travel across the country fighting evil and protecting the innocent. In Asia, movies and television series about Wuxia have been popular for decades.
In the modern Wuxia flick "Crouching Tiger," we track the travails of warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat). Li decides to retire from the martial arts life otherwise known as Jiang Hu -- which, by the way, is the true spelling, as opposed to the widely used "Giang Hu" -- but not before avenging the murder of his master.
The film indeed is beautifully shot. In the darkened movie theater, I found my mouth agape. I was captivated by the images on the screen -- the ruggedly magnificent landscape of the Gobi Desert; the hushed, mystical setting of a deep green bamboo thicket; and the melancholy, misty mountaintops seen in many a Chinese brush painting.
I wanted so much to love the movie absolutely.
But then there were the flying scenes.
Now, in most Wuxia movies, the warriors and bad guys do fly in some instances. But the flying is infrequent and usually comes in the form of a semi-believable powerful leap onto a tree branch or a short flight through the air to escape an enemy, sword still poised just so. Usually, the audience believes their flying just a little, because before the heroes or bad guys leap, we hear them utter tiny grunts of effort.
In "Crouching Tiger," however, the heroes and bad guys don't defy gravity just occasionally. Lee takes what usually is but a small aspect of Wuxia combat and expands it so that several fight scenes are dominated by the actors gliding easily through the sky, not just brazenly leaping onto rooftops or running through the air but also chasing each other up and down walls. They swoop around in the air so much they look like Chinese astronauts -- sans the bulky spacesuits, of course.
And they don't even break a sweat! (Take that, Isaac Newton.)
"An Asian audience would immediately laugh because the flying is so ludicrous!" said my friend Yvonne, an avid film fan who is more than well-versed in Wuxia pian, or martial arts films. "Even in Wuxia movies, there is a willing suspension of disbelief. ... But [Lee] makes their flying so fantastic -- their leap is too effortless, they are in the air for way too long -- that Asian audiences or audiences who are familiar with the genre are forced to respond to this."
A good example of this in "Crouching Tiger" is a combat scene that many American critics singled out for praise but drew the most laughs from the Wuxia fans in my group.
In this scene, Li Mu Bai and Jen (Zhang Ziyi) fly into a dense bamboo forest and engage in intricate swordplay while balancing on the swaying limbs. The luminescent green of the bamboos and the soft swishes of the rustling leaves and moving limbs lend a hypnotic, other-worldly feel to the scene. Critics have called it "rapturous" and "thrilling," and the scene truly is an enchanting treat cinematically. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get over how absurd the fight looked. And my friends at home seemed to concur.
"Of course the international audience will wax lyrical about how the weightlessness is magical," Yvonne said. "But audiences aware of the genre can respond in two ways -- he's out only to fool the silly Americans or he's reinventing the genre."
Perhaps my friends have a point about Lee's seemingly trying to recast Wuxia film in an appealing form for foreign audiences.
"Crouching Tiger" indeed is different from most of the Wuxia films we grew up watching -- not just in the fight scenes, but also in its grandiose narrative approach and wonderfully shot scenes that are mesmerizing and unforgettable cinematic gems. Since Asian food, customs, books, film and actors appear to be dominating the front lines of pop culture, what better time for Lee to play up the Far Eastern mystique in a movie to market to the world?
Besides, this would hardly be the first time that a movie based on a traditional, well-known character or persona was criticized by audiences in its homeland but received well elsewhere.
Take "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," for example. My friend Kevin in Singapore loved it.
Ang Lee's film, praised in this country, leaves Asian audiences laughing or scoffing.