I had this amazing conversation with Ang Lee, the director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." His visionary martial arts fantasy, which opens Friday, has won lots of year-end honors, including the best film award from the Los Angeles film critics group. It started when I mentioned what the "computer work" used in a scene where two swordfighters are clinging to the tops of swaying trees.
"No computers," said Lee.
"The people were really up there?" I asked.
"Actually doing it."
"In the trees?"
"Yes. The scene doesn't have the usual horror movie slickness because the people we are photographing are real. They're actually up there. Everything you see is real except the wires, which we digitally removed."
"You had them hanging from safety wires?"
"Yes. It was sort of dangerous. From construction cranes. Scary."
"I would have bet it was done with a computer."
"No. The softest things are the hardest things to do on a computer. Making the leaves bend, showing the clouds, wind, water..."
"How about when they're dancing over the rooftops?" I asked, referring to an early chase scene where the actors run up the sides of walls and seem to float from one rooftop to another.
"It's real. They're actually doing it. There is no virtual reality, as they call it; I don't have that kind of money."
I was still struggling to get my bearings. "So...you used stunt people, right?"
"Some. Most of those scenes the actors did themselves."
"Themselves?" I'm thinking of Chou Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, big worldwide stars, breaking their necks or other valuable parts.
"Most of the time. If you see face front, it's them. Even side, most of the time, it's them. I like to really see them, although the stunt men could do it better. The emotional effect is different when you see their faces. See, computers look like computers. We're not there yet. The kind of technique I used in this film doesn't match the Hollywood standard of slickness. Hollywood is more technically astonishing but they don't necessarily capture the human feelings. Our movie is less perfect but more human."
I think he's being too hard on himself. "Crouching Tiger" is the most impressive martial arts movie I have ever seen. Not because of the stunts, although they are startling, but because of the overall effect. Ang Lee told me his film was influenced not so much by other martial arts movies as by the books he read when he was young, books that emphasized myth and romance as much as action.
"The author whose book I started with, Wang Du Lu, is really writing Greek tragedy. And, similar to my taste, he has a strong woman, and a contemptible woman. And he is focused on the values of the characters. They are warriors, and also role models. They have simple moral codes about personal transcendence. How do you perfect yourself into a higher state? When you're enlightened, you're more focused. I think that's the element that this genre has gradually lost over the years, with the emphasis on action. I can't tell you how many people, especially who grew up as I did reading those books, come and tell me this is what martial arts film should be."
For Ang Lee, the film comes as a departure from what he's done before--but then all of his films seem like departures. Born 46 years ago in Taiwan, educated at the University of Illinois at Urbana, living in New York, he moves effortlessly from genre to genre. Look at his titles. After the early hits "The Wedding Banquet" (1993) and "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994), which spanned his Chinese and American backgrounds, he adapted Jane Austen's "Sense And Sensibility" (1995), which won an Academy nomination as one of the year's best films and won an Oscar for Emma Thompson's screenplay. Then came the completely different "The Ice Storm" (1997) about angst-ridden suburbanites, and the Civil War-era adventurer "Ride with the Devil" (1999). His next project will be based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Diaries, memories from the author whose work inspired "Cabaret."
"You stand in the middle of two different cultures," I said. "I have to connect with the material emotionally, on a gut level. From genre to genre for me is like an actor playing a different part. I get scared and have lot to learn, but a few weeks into the production I feel at ease. I don't feel alienated. And then just because I go back to the Chinese culture with this film doesn't mean I know what to do. Every movie, I'm taking a chance."