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Let Sleeping Dragons Lie

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Director: Ang Lee (2000)


US box office receipts for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have already broken the US$100 million barrier, the first foreign language to do so in North America. Yet Chinese audiences gave director Ang Lee's martial arts romance the cold shoulder. So what makes a Chinese movie an international sensation and the domestic flop of the year?


The resounding cry from Chinese audiences was that they were willing to suspend disbelief for a fanciful movie - but only to a point. Of one scene where lead players Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi fly through a bamboo forest aided by tricky wirework, one Chinese viewer sniffed "people don't walk on bamboo branches."


Although martial arts novels are often referred to as "fairy tales for adults," moviegoers still have their own stringent, if mystifying, criteria for a "believable" movie. And it would seem that Crouching Tiger fell short of that mark, in the minds of audiences and critics alike.


East Meets West


For Professor Huang Shixian of the Beijing Film Academy, Crouching Tiger was essentially a "Chinese card played by Hollywood," created solely to cater for Western tastes. He was quoted in the influential Southern Weekend as saying Crouching Tiger, like Lee's previous movies Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, was "a strategic move by Ang Lee to win Hollywood recognition.


"Xinhua cultural correspondent for Fang Ning concurred with Huang's summarization. Although she admired the film's martial arts sequences, visual effects, and use of music, she didn't buy the emotional distance acted out between the warrior lovers, played by Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. "It wasn't convincing that people who loved each other would behave that way," Fang said.


"When I started reading bad reviews in the Chinese press, I decided to see it again to see if I agreed with the critics," counters Beijing resident Robert Farr. "But I found I was enjoying it too much to care." Like many Western residents in China, he found himself in the unusual position of defending a Chinese language movie to his Chinese friends.


Hidden Scandal


So what went wrong for the movie to be slated so badly by Chinese audiences? Zheng Quangang, one of the film's producers and former president of the China Film Co-operation Production Co., blamed it on poor timing. Crouching Tiger was initially scheduled to be released in July 2000, along with other Asian countries, but in fact was not released on the Chinese mainland until October 2000. By this time pirated VCDs had already been on the streets for several months, explains Zheng, taking away a significant portion of the audience.


At the time, Zheng stated that the delay in the film's release was because cinemas in the capital were already showing a number of Hollywood hits such as Shanghai Noon and Dinosaur. Dong Ping, another Crouching Tiger producer, tells a different story. He claims the Chinese premiere was postponed due to a dispute that erupted over distribution rights on the Mainland when Asian Union Film and Entertainment refused to sell its rights to China's sole importer of foreign blockbusters, the state-owned China Film Group Corporation.


"We carefully planned to screen the film in China at the same time as other parts of Asia to fight VCD pirating, but it happened anyway," said Dong, who is also chairman of Asian Union. The company contributed 80% of the total US$1million Chinese mainland investments in the movie.


Crouching Failure


Others disagree with Dong's summary. Zhang Xun of China's Film Co-operation Production Co. claims the dispute was just one of may "complicated reasons" behind the postponement, and certainly not the main reason.


Local film critics discounted the role of VCD pirating in Crouching Tiger's unimpressive box-office performance, pointing to the numerous Hollywood blockbusters such as Titanic who fought off the pirates to still be a success in the movie theaters. A new generation of joint venture cinemas, kitted out with luxurious seats and Dolby sound, make large-screen versions of movies infinitely more desirable to the viewing public.


In an attempt to woo audiences, Crouching Tiger was re-released in advance of the March 25th Oscar ceremony as part of an "Oscar Classics" promotion. But the plan fell flat on its face, with few theater managers willing to screen the film in empty theaters.


"Perhaps it's not so discouraging," observed one optimistic review posted on a Sina website notice board. "Maybe it indicates our movie-goers have become more sophisticated and no longer follow the tastes of Westerners." Maybe.


(cityweekend.com.cn January 19, 2004)

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