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'Crouching Tiger' radiates American tastes, not Chinese culture


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

My first meal in America was orange chicken and rice at a Manhattan Chinese restaurant. It was more than six years ago. I had just arrived from Shanghai and had never heard of orange chicken in my native China. I ordered the dish out of curiosity.

I didn't realize until much later that orange chicken was invented for the American palate. Their stomachs were deemed too sensitive for the hot spices of Szechuan, their tongues too callous to appreciate the nuanced flavorings of the lower Yangtze delta and their eyes too cowardly to greet the bold ingredients of Canton. Americans, apparently, cannot take the real thing. Hence orange chicken.

The movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is to the Chinese martial arts genre as orange chicken is to Chinese cuisine. The screen writers, two Chinese and one American, and the director, a New York-educated Taiwanese, had probably only the Western audience in mind when they created the fantasy film. They have achieved their objectives. A box office blockbuster in America and Europe, the movie attracted small crowds in mainland China and Hong Kong. There, instead of 10 Oscar nominations, it won at best mediocre reviews.

Why don't the Chinese, or I in particular, like this film?

For one thing, we have a deeply ingrained notion that martial arts movies should shun special effects. If you have watched the movie but haven't yet figured it out, the flying scenes during the chases were created by sturdy ropes attached to the actors. Lifting the actors from above, the ropes were eventually obliterated by computers.

Why not special effects? Because the whole point of martial arts is to reach and extend the limits of the human body. The supreme martial arts are about the human body at its top form -- not about machines, be they guns or computers. There are indeed individuals who can walk walls and race on rooftops after years of practice. But flying through thin air? It's laughable and it mocks, with the click of a mouse, the decades of practice that go into achieving human perfection. It's like entering a Ferrari in an Olympic 100-meter race. What Americans call ballet-like flight, we call cheap fakes.

Moreover, the characters are decidedly un-Chinese -- or, at least, they do not belong to the Chinese martial arts fantasy world. My generation -- I am 25 -- of Chinese grew up captivated by this invented ancient world created by two contemporary novelists, Jim Yong from Hong Kong and Gu Long from Taiwan, considered masters of this genre. They were our Stephen King. Many boys considered running away from home to the legendary Wudang Mountain, a real place that has appeared in this movie, to study martial arts. Some indeed tried and were only escorted home.

But our world of martial arts fantasy is one of unspoken truths and subtle understatements, not of Hollywood lyrical mush. In Crouching Tiger, when Jade Fox is dying, she stretches out her arm to Jen, the governor's daughter, condemns her as the true poison, and says to her, "My only family, my only enemy." Her last words sound fine in English, but most improbable and incongruous in Chinese. The veteran martial artists are stoic, cynical and unrevealing even at death.

Soon after the death of Li Mu Bai, the revenge-seeking warrior, his heartbroken lover tells Jen that whatever route she chooses, she should be true to herself. I was shocked. The notion of being true to oneself arrived in China only during the lifetime of my generation. Even today, people are seeking a proper Chinese translation of this concept. But the ethos of old China was starkly different. For ordinary people, it was to serve your family and your clan; for the martial arts warriors, it was to die for your friends and your master when called for. I have a nagging suspicion that the screenwriters wrote this part first in English and translated it back to Chinese.

The uniformly glowing applause of U.S. film critics has not helped to give this film a more international dimension. One critic depicts the warriors as so "zen-pure in their martial arts they could fly." Another dates the story as "medieval." Yet another calls the actions "karate." Zen, of course, is a variety of Buddhist meditation. And this story wasn't medieval; the Qing Dynasty coexisted with Queen Victoria. And karate? It's Japanese.

Crouching Tiger may be an enjoyable action film to some, but to Chinese people like me, the western condiments have utterly spoiled this Chinese dish.

- Yilu Zhao is a business writer for the Times.

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