Al Jazeera meets Naji Abu Nowar, the Jordanian-British director, on his way to Hollywood for the Oscars awards ceremony.
The new Crouching Tiger has turned out to be toothless. When the sequel to the 2000 martial arts masterpiece was released in China two weeks ago, even the state media were blunt: “Sword of Destiny is out, but it’ll only remind you that Ang Lee’s original film was indeed a classic.”
“It was extremely uncomfortable watching a group of ethnically Chinese performers speaking English and then being dubbed into Mandarin,” said a programmer for Shanghai International Film Festival. “This kind of disharmony embodied the film’s entire style; it was a complete and utter mess.”
Filming in English, and overdubbing for Chinese audiences, was a quick fix to the most pressing question facing mainstream filmmakers today: how to please both the West and China. With the Chinese box office due to become the world’s biggest next year, this is uncharted territory for everyone.
It is understandable that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny – reliant on Michelle Yeoh’s bygone elegance to chaperone its flat-footed Ang Lee tribute act into this brave new world – opted for the easy route. It is essentially an old-school Hong Kong chop-socky flick with English dialogue (unsurprisingly, with its Western audience mostly on Netflix). But 15 years ago, Ang Lee made Yeoh and co-star Chow Yun-fat, both Cantonese speakers, recite Mandarin lines phonetically. That is just one sign of the commitment that made the original Crouching Tiger, Hollywood in origin, a pioneer in seeking out that elixir of 21st century cinema: combining East and West.
Back then, though, it wasn’t about the money. With the Chinese box office bringing in a microscopic $100m a year in the late 1990s – as opposed to $6.8bn in 2015 – it was the prospect of a homecoming that stirred emigre Ang Lee into making a wuxia; the epic, fantasy-infused martial-arts genre in which its protagonists literally let fly.
It was a homecoming for a home he had never known: Lee was from Taiwan, where his father had ended up after fleeing the Communist purges, and wuxia was one form through which the exiles maintained a connection with traditional Chinese culture.
Traditional, though, was not the path taken by the director by the time, aged 45, he was ready to make his own kung-fu film. Long since departed for the United States and having made his name first chronicling his own bifurcated identity in his Father Knows Best trilogy, then masterfully assimilating into disparate other cultures in Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm, cross-cultural was Lee’s stock in trade.
In acting school, Western drama had been a revelation to Lee. “I only understood about half of what was going on, but just the look of [it] struck me in a big way,” he later told The New Yorker. “You exert your feelings. You outcry. You use drama to do the bang and through that, purge your feelings. It was a big culture shock to me. You’ve got to verbalise conflict on-stage. I got very good at it.”
It was this subjective force, this psychological acuity with which Lee wanted to re-illuminate and cast new shadows over the long-fixed boundaries of an ornate Chinese form. Beginning with a slow, 15-minute preamble in which Yeoh and Chow’s characters – and their repressed love – are intimately established in a way that would have action-hungry Hong Kong audiences tearing up seats, he and screenwriter James Schamus began their overhaul of Wang Dulu’s 1948 novel.
A kowtowing John Wayne
At the same time, they had to honour the Eastern tradition. Before writing, Schamus embarked on a crash-course in the Chinese canon: Zhuangzi, Laozi, Mozi, Confucius, the Tang poets. When he handed his initial draft to his Taiwanese collaborator Hui-ling Wang, he realised he was still culturally “tone-deaf”.
“Imagine a Chinese writer trying his hand at a classic John Wayne western, in which, as the Duke approaches the town’s sheriff, he says ‘Howdy’ – and proceeds to kowtow nine times,” says Schamus. “Multiply and vary that a hundredfold.”
As the drafts passed back and forth, translated into Mandarin and then back into English, something intriguing began to emerge from this game of Chinese-American whispers.
Most revolutionary was the dervish at the film’s heart, played by 20-year-old Zhang Ziyi. Her struggle to escape arranged marriage fitted into the quintessential Chinese interplay between the Confucian emphasis on social order and the Daoist impulse towards freedom. But it was a startlingly feminist spin on it that felt powerfully modern.
The 400-year-old jade sword around which the plot whirls represented yin, the female life force; to see it also wielded by women, in sometimes violent and selfish defence of their own interests, was remarkable. These elements were in Dulu’s novel, but Schamus made them the spear-tip of Lee’s film.
Uniting East and West
Their hybrid epic – a true collaborative synthesis on every level from script to finance to crew – makes current attempts to unite East and West look half-baked.
Dodgy oriental settings, like the Karate Kid remake, or slipping in a China-set scene, as in Skyfall, or a Chinese star have become routine. Iron Man 3 even lampooned these ersatz overtures – “a cheap American knock-off” like the fortune cookie – at the same time as peddling them. Kung Fu Panda 3 recently went a bit further, not just re-recording Mandarin dialogue with local favourites such as Jackie Chan, but altering jokes and animation to reflect Chinese sensibilities and body language.
The producers of Chinese blockbusters, content for the time being to toss derivative, CGI-heavy treats to their own insatiable film market, are barely even trying to make in-roads in the opposite direction.
Few projects, though, have talents like Ang Lee and James Schamus at their disposal. But the duo’s cross-cultural efforts were ahead of their time. Their exquisite gallop through Qing China entranced the West, earning $213.5m worldwide and becoming the US’ highest-grossing foreign-language film.
The Chinese gross, though, was only $1.5m. Some suggested the film’s Westernising innovations were just too foreign – and it’s true that local reviews were not good. In fact, Crouching Tiger was the victim of a different sort of immaturity in Beijing film circles: squabbling between the state film organisation and one of the early private entertainment companies involved in the production wrecked its release in the country it so romantically hymned.
But Crouching Tiger’s fusions pointed the direction to the future: bringing Hong Kong action expertise to the mainland, importing American professionalism to redefine the scope of Chinese cinema. At the start of the decade in which the Chinese film market was to undergo a phenomenal transformation, it was a global smash in a way very few Eastern films have been since. We’re long overdue another blast of fire from that hidden dragon.
Phil Hoad was formerly The Guardian’s global box office analyst and Dazed & Confused’s film editor. He has written on cinema for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Times, The Face and The Big Issue.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.