INTERVIEW: Ang Lee, Director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
by Anthony Kaufman
Question: Is this film an homage to King Hu, the famous martial arts director of the 1960s and 70s [“Touch of Zen,” “Valiant Ones”]?
Ang Lee: In certain ways, because I grew up with it, but then I have to update the martial arts film in my own fashion. More and more so, the martial arts [films] have gone away from the dramatic. As I was doing it, I now know why. Because you spend 80% of your budget and your time on martial arts things. They’re very time-consuming. It’s almost impossible to have both drama and martial arts. Even in the martial arts scenes, it’s very difficult and could be dangerous to the actors who have to think about acting while hitting each other in a precise way.
Q: How did you achieve the balance?
Lee: Time, effort, and I killed them [the actors]. I really pushed them. There’s really no easy answer to that.
Q: What are your expectations surrounding the film’s release in America?
Lee: I hope it will break the barrier on how foreign films play in the States. From where I come from, how I grew up, I got used to subtitles so did everybody else. But it’s not the same way in America. Subtitles are very art-house, mature audiences. And I hope it starts the same way and then breaks the barrier and gets into the shopping malls and reaches out to a younger audience.
Q: You’ve made so many different kinds of movies. From a British period drama to a Western to now martial arts, how do you do it?
Lee: It’s like the line in “Ride with the Devil,” when Tobey’s watching Jewel breastfeeding, and she says, “Are you going to always watch like that?” He says, “As long as I can.” Movies are an adventure. I purposely don’t want to put myself in a certain [category]. How else am I going to share the great experience with Wo-Ping, the great martial arts choreographer and filmmaker and learn about his world except by doing it? How else am I going to do a war with guns and horses without doing it? These are childhood fantasies that I keep having, and some material hits me, I always match the genre with drama and then have fun.
Q: Can you talk about working with fight choreographer Yuen Wo-ping?
Lee: He’s a man of invention who cares for the traditional classic Chinese fighting styles. Not just wire, he likes working on the ground. I’m a great admirer of his and I think he’s one of the great filmmakers to begin with and it’s my luck to work with him. I had many dreams and fantasies about doing this genre, some of them inspiring, probably silly to him. The biggest thing I learned from him is that martial arts film has very little to do with martial arts; it’s cinema, it’s expression, it’s what’s good on screen, how you work out the shots, what’s the best angle, what’s the best for the human body to express itself to the audience. And to me, that was great inspiration as tool for drama. And we had a great relationship. In the beginning, it was more of a pain in the neck for him. What can I say, he let me get into his world of filmmaking and it was a blessing.
Q: How did you cover all those highly choreographed action scenes?
Lee: I have learned the way I did coverage before is not a good idea. You do it by assembly. You work on one shot, and you work along the way. More guerilla filmmaking than student film. On the other hand, there are highly sophisticated ways to cover, way more than Hollywood can do, in terms of choreography. But you do assemblies, because you only have so much time. There’s no time allowed to do coverage and then decide in the editing room and have rich coverage from all possible angles. You do one shot at a time; you work just for that angle. And they have to be short, because in a long take, it’s very hard for everyone to memorize [the blocking]. And you always make mistakes. After 30 takes, you’ve worn the actors out. You might want to do it once or twice and really persevere and get that result. But most of the time, you have 20 other shots that you want to do, so you work on a specific angle.
Q: So how did the famous bamboo sequence come about?
Lee: Everybody does swords in a Chinese fantasy martial arts film in a bamboo forest, but nobody ever gets on tops of them. I had to do it; it was my fantasy and we had to do it. It was a 10 days company move for us to get to the location. We didn’t know if it would work or not. [Wo-Ping] took the challenge begrudgingly and then we worked his men to death.
Q: What is the difference between working with a Hong Kong crew and a western crew?
Lee: The Hong Kong crew is quite westernized, but adapted to the Chinese film industry. Most of them had worked on Western movies, but we cannot apply the Western style to the Chinese filmmaking, especially kung fu, you have to have a lot of flexibility, not only because of budget, but the nature of the filmmaking. You do one set at a time. And figure out what to do next. You assemble your fight sequences, and meanwhile, I want artistic valor in the non-fight sequences. The crew is very adapted to Western style of filmmaking, but in some ways, they’re more sophisticated and more efficient — especially when it comes to action because that’s their specialty. They know how to cope with lighting and whatever’s necessary. They also use this crane named the Power Pod — I’ve worked in the West and nobody can do it like they can. It’s a big deal to set up and it’s never really accurate. So I get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
THREE CONVERSATIONS about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”