Films

IN THE MOOD FOR ASIA

As Crouching Tiger squares off against Gladiator at the Oscars, Western audiences swoon over Far East fare

Brian D. Johnson February 26 2001
Films

IN THE MOOD FOR ASIA

As Crouching Tiger squares off against Gladiator at the Oscars, Western audiences swoon over Far East fare

Brian D. Johnson February 26 2001

IN THE MOOD FOR ASIA

Films

As Crouching Tiger squares off against Gladiator at the Oscars, Western audiences swoon over Far East fare

Brian D. Johnson

The prize is a statue of a naked man holding a sword between his legs, and this year the symbolism could not be more apt. With last week’s announcement of the Oscar nominations, Hollywood’s ritual popularity contest comes down to an epic clash between two styles of swordplay—the heavy-metal combat of Gladiator, which racked up 12 nominations, and the quicksilver martial arts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was honoured in 10 categories. There are, of course, other nominations for best picture: white-hot Steven Soderbergh is competing against himself as director of Traffic and Erin Brockovich, and Miramax has again shown it can sell anything by seducing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with its featherweight valentine Chocolat. But when awards are handed out on March 25, the David-and-Goliath duel between Gladiator and Crouching Tiger promises to be the main event: a showdown between heroic brawn and feminine grace—and between the Old Hollywood and the Asian Invasion.

Nominated in both the foreign-language and bestpicture categories, Crouching Tiger is a phenomenon. It has already grossed more than $90 million at the North American box office, a record for a subtitled film. And the success of the movie, by Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, represents a blossoming of Asian film in the West—arguably the most exciting breakthrough for international cinema since the emergence of the European NewWave in the 1960s. Hong Kong’s martial arts exports are already well-entrenched, with director John Woo bringing florid violence to Hollywood blockbusters {Face/Off, MI:2), and kung fit star Jackie Chan clowning his way into Western hearts {Shanghai Noon)But the latest wave of Asian film is marked by an elegance and contemplative beauty beyond anything North American audiences are accustomed to.

While Crouching Tiger is the most spectacular example, and worthy of all the acclaim, recently critics have fallen into a collective swoon over a much quieter picture called In the Mood for Love, an exquisite romance by Hong Kong

virtuoso Wong Kar-wai. The academy—which has the kind of clumsy relationship to art that the U.S. presidential elections have to democracy—somehow failed to nominate In the Mood for Love for best foreign-language film. It also overlooked Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, a domestic epic ofTolstoyan depth that topped many North American critics’ lists (it has not yet been released in Canada). But from its premiere in Cannes last May, Crouching Tiger has seduced audiences and critics alike.

While undeniably exotic to Western eyes, Ang Lee’s film is not entirely foreign. The landscapes and costumes speak a universal language, the Taoist acrobatics suggest a refinement of The Matrix, and the adventure in the desert conjures up any number of classic westerns. In fact, there’s been some controversy over the film’s pedigree. A recent article in Variety reported that Asian audiences have dismissed Crouching Tiger as “kung-fooey.” Citing weak box-office returns abroad, the story says the film “hit a great wall in China, had no soul in Seoul and was gonged in Hong Kong.” Apparendy, Crouching Tigers leads, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, sound awkward speaking Mandarin, in which neither is fluent. Audiences raised on the kung fu genre find the notion of flying female warriors old hat, and they are impatient with the picture’s stately pace.

Director Lee is the first to admit that he has made a fusion film, a hybrid of Asian action and his own Sense and Sensibility, in fact, Crouching Tigers main writer, American James Sham us, collaborated with Lee on Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. But one of the reasons Crouching Tiger is so enchanting is that it transcends genre with a magic all its own. Lee has gone so far as to compare his movie to opening an American-Chinese restaurant, one that starts out by educating the Western diet with chop suey before introducing more demanding delicacies.

In the Mood for Love is a more acquired taste. It’s a perversely uneventful tale of thwarted love, a romance unadorned by action, sentiment or sex—and possibly the most dignified movie ever made about adultery. With image and gesture, it conjures a kind of phantom eroticism, and a haunting sadness. The movie marks a departure for director Wong Kar-wai, whose previous work (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) moves with the kinetic blur of music video. In the new film, the virtuosity of his composition is still extraordinary, but the pace is languid.

The story takes place in Hong Kong, 1962. A newspaper editor named Chow (Tony Leung) moves into an apartment next door to Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a secretary in an ex-

port firm. They are both married, but their partners are often away on business. And as Chow and Li-zhen gradually become friends, they discover their spouses are having an affair. We never see the adulterers, just the backs of their heads. The story is devoted to the slow dance between the betrayed spouses as they inch towards a romance neither wants to acknowledge. Ships in the night, they pass each other in stairwells, or at the noodle shop. When they finally share a meal, and a cab home, they get out separately. People might talk.

In the Mood for Love is a drama of elision, a fabric of unspoken desires and missed opportunities. “That tie looks good on you,” Li-zhen tells Chen in one scene. “You noticed?” he asks. “You notice things if you pay attention,” she says. And that could be the coda for the film. Wong asks you to pay attention, and to notice things. You notice how the Venetian blinds in her otherwise drab office match her coffee cup, or how he gazes at the lipstick smudge on her discarded cigarette, or how red curtains billow along the carnal hallway of a hotel where the lovers may or may not make love.

But most of all, you notice what Maggie Cheung is wearing. The drama’s boldest strokes are conveyed through her repertoire of dresses, which change from scene to scene, moment to moment. Cheung goes through almost as many outfits as Erin Brockovich, without the cleavage. She wears mod patterns, floral prints, iridescent silks. But they’re all the same cut—long, formfitting and sleeveless with a high Mandarin collar, each wrapping her body like a watercolour. The dresses modulate the story as a visual fugue, and the filmmaker pokes fun at his own conceit. “She dresses up like that to go out for noodles?” the landlady asks.

The music, meanwhile, plays like patterned fabric, shifting between a mournful violin and a Spanish ballad by Nat King Cole. As in Chungking Express, which used California Dreamin as a constant loop, Wong loves to beat a refrain to death. He finds inexplicable beauty in the banal, in letting a closeup linger on a clock face, or a telephone, long enough to make you wonder why the damn thing looks so lovely. As the characters try to connect, you find yourself staring at backgrounds, lurid wallpaper and scarred concrete, looking for hidden meaning. “If someone had a secret,” says Chow, “you know what they used to do? They found a tree, carved a hole in it and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered the hole with mud and left the secret there forever.” In the Mood for Love whispers in your ear and seals it with a kiss.