Interviews

INTERVIEW: ANG LEE (CROUNCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON)

By • Dec 24th, 2000 •

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Director Ang Lee claims he has no checklist of movie genres he’s marking off with each film, but no one could accuse him of a foolish consistency in picking projects either. He’s done everything from a modern romantic comedy with gay themes (The Wedding Banquet), Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), contemporary drama with social comment (The Ice Storm) and a period Western (Ride with the Devil). His latest film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is perhaps his most ambitious undertaking-a Hong Kong-style martial arts film, complete with eye-popping action sequences but also featuring strong female characters and almost operatic love stories. And what’s next? Maybe a musical. Lee discussed his filmmaking philosophy, as well as some of the challenges of making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which opens Dec. 8.

Q: Do you see any similarities between your earlier films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?

LEE: I think that, as in Sense and Sensibility, there’s the conflict of social obligations and free will. The “Father” trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) had that theme, and I also realized I was using that principle when I did Sense. My question to myself is always, how do I engineer the through line, the central emotion of a film project. Because whenever I do a genre I tend to bend it or make it something else, to find something refreshing to me, and also find my creative freedom. And I haven’t escaped that theme yet.

Q: A lot of people in the West admire the style of fighting in your film, but they miss the philosophy. These characters aren’t quite soldiers, but there’s a way of life behind the way they live, along with the fighting.

LEE: The philosophy is usually what generates me to make up stories. To devote a year of my life, in this case two years, a project has to have a structure or a basic element that excites me. But I think for a movie viewer the philosophy isn’t important. I think the most important thing is the emotional tour they will go through in that two hours. I’ll try to hide the philosophy and make it invisible. I think that’s the skill, to hide it. If somebody picks it up, that’s great.

I always feel like philosophy works against drama, at least in my case. Philosophy is one way to reduce your self-tension, desire, your hidden dragon so to speak, and try to match the way nature’s laws operate. Being from Taiwan and educated as a Chinese, that’s a philosophy and lifestyle that is very much ‘discipline’ and anti-dramatic-but moving toward the Western tendency to be dramatic and self-asserting. That becomes my theme. And I love Western drama and the constant conflict. But any audience has as much right as I do to look at the film and interpret it their own way.

Q: I read that you said that every Chinese director must do a martial arts movie.

LEE: That was just bragging, because I did it. But it’s kind of true in a way. I think it’s a boyhood fantasy about power, morality, about women certainly, romance and adventure. It’s close to our primitive and secretive joys. And since it’s a fantasy, anything’s possible.

Also the Hong Kong genre is such an exhilarating filmmaking language-it’s really a powerful, raw energy kind of filmmaking, and I think that’s very attractive. The Hong Kong filmmakers are the best at how to work out a shot. For them, all that matters is what looks good and is effective for the audience.

Q: How difficult was it choreographing the wire work? It’s the most incredible wire work I’ve seen in any martial arts movie.

LEE: We used thicker wire-usually films use much thinner wire. They also use cheesy lighting skills, not backlighting it, or using smoke or Vaseline over the lens to blur it. Thanks to the digital technology that now can be affordable, we were able to use a lot thicker wire. Even so, the swinging forces could be terrible. The wire work also involves a tacit understanding between the puller and the actors. The actors have to act along with the force and be quite sensitive to it. The coordination between them and the puller is something they have to adapt to and learn. We live in a world with gravity, there’s nothing we can do about it, but we try to imitate weightlessness as much as we can.

Q: How long did shooting take?

LEE: The whole movie? Five months.

Q: Is there a tradition of having women warriors? I haven’t seen that in a lot of martial arts movies.

LEE: This is a very male-dominant genre, and I suspect the woman warrior is a male fantasy-oh, what a potent, fascinating woman-and it’s even more fascinating to conquer them. But this book is one of the rare cases where we take the emotional tour with the women. We take their point of view, and they get to carry the story.

Q: Is this a very popular book?

LEE: No, that’s why I chose it. Others have been made over and over.

Q: Were the combat scenes in Ride with the Devil a preparation for this film?

LEE: Yes, but the skills are very different. Ride was educational for me, although Westerns are a lot easier-the complexity of choreography and setting up the camera to shoot them is easier than sword fighting. I think it was a good warm-up for me; technically I learned what to expect in action sequences, like how much time it might take to rig something, and safety issues.

When I see movies where they can stage something great but not get close to the actors, I’ll always get bored. Especially doing a martial arts movie you can get carried away showing off how much you can fascinate people with movement. But I knew from experience that unless the movement is an extension of the characterization, an interpretation of the relationship, part of the plot, it’s not good. People get bored, because they want to know what’s going on and they get confused.

Q:
How do you include character and the continuation of the dramatic elements in the combat scenes? Are those things incorporated in the script?

LEE: It’s not in the script-those are on-set kinds of things. It’s really the collaboration with the choreographer on the set, where we start to pool ideas and see what’s possible. Because a fighting sequence, if it lasts three to five minutes, does need narrations, pauses, time to exchange lines. It’s a part of the storytelling.

I’ll tell the choreographer what principles I want the fight to have. For example in the bamboo fight [between Chow Yun Fat’s and Zhang Ziyi’s characters, atop swaying bamboo branches 60 feet in the air], I told the choreographer it’s not fighting, it’s almost like caressing. It’s the prohibited dragon dancing, so let’s do something magic. When it comes to shoot, I give my opinion about if it fits the overall characterization and relationship at that stage-does it escalate? does it help the plot?-and he’ll make adjustments on the set, which really tortures the actors.

Q: How important was Yuen Wo-Ping [fight choreographer of The Matrix] to this movie? Would you have made this if he wasn’t available?

LEE: No. It would be some other movie. I like his style, I’ve admired him since I was a film student. He made the first Jackie Chan movie that made him a star, it revolutionized martial arts style. To me he’s the ideal collaborator. He taught me a lot.

Q: Did he have any apprehension in working with you, because you hadn’t had martial arts experience?

LEE: I think we have a mutual admiration, and he knew what I do. But it was like doing Jane Austen-I had to prove that I could do the job. It was a long stage to speak his language and earn his trust. I also think that, although he doesn’t admit it, at heart Yuen Wo-Ping is an artist. His profession has such a blue-collar, working ethic-they don’t admit that they care for art, but I think he does care. Of course they have their own way of working, and most of the times I would try to bend those rules and make a difference and there would be struggles.

Q: Do you have a favorite genre, since you’ve dabbled in so many of them?

LEE: No, I don’t have a checklist. I think anything with dramatic elements would be interesting. But I know any genre I pick up I would like to bend and find something different about it. I think a thriller or a ghost story would be great, maybe at a certain point a musical. James Schamus (co-screenwriter of Tiger) is writing a musical. I want to do something back in New York so I can stay home.

Q: Your films always have a lot of humor-I wonder if you’d do an out-and-out comedy?

LEE:
I think that would probably be the hardest thing to do-as if someone points a gun to my head and says ‘be funny.’ The humor in my movies is always about something that I didn’t know was really funny. If I think something’s funny and leave space for people to laugh at, it never really works. Pure comedy, whether it’s romantic or absurd comedy, would probably be the most difficult for me.

Q:
Could you talk about casting Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, why you wanted them?

LEE: Well there’s not much choice, they’re big stars, and the parts they’re playing are kind of role models in the martial arts genre. Their experience, stardom and status fit perfectly. Michelle I never had a second thought about-when I had the idea of doing this movie, she naturally was in my head. To me she worked all her life toward this part. Before she read she was freshly off the James Bond movie, and she was hot and didn’t take anything for a year-she was waiting. She went through tai chi training and [Mandarin] language training for this film.

And Chow Yun Fat is our biggest star and finest actor. The difficulty of him is to change his audience image from the modern character to a stately, conservative, more repressed one, with a shaved head and a ponytail-and holding a sword, that was new.

Q: What does the title signify?

LEE: In the written Chinese characters, Jen’s name has a dragon in it, and Lo has a tiger, so it’s the little tiger and the dragon. The hidden tiger or crouching tiger is a Chinese phrase to not underestimate what you see on the surface-people in disguise can surprise you. There’s also the repressed desire in a repressed society, the untamed nature that’s potent, that’s romantic, that’s destructive. To me it appeared to be the midlife crisis. Making this movie and stretching everything-I was dealing with the hidden dragon.

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