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Art and Action Kick It Up

For Ang Lee, the chance to make a martial-arts flick was a childhood dream come true. But the director of such high-brow fare as 'Sense and Sensibility' didn't exactly ditch aesthetics for fun.

November 12, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

BEIJING — We are in the bowels of a fantastical cavern, an abandoned pottery factory crammed with beehive-shaped kilns and littered with cracked pots and broken shards. Water drips, a fire burns.

In this heart of darkness, the final scenes of director Ang Lee's eagerly awaited "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" unfold. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), the shining heroes of this magical martial arts epic, will confront Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), a woman who has mastered the mystic arts for her own sinister designs.

Today, a key action scene has been scheduled for Chow, a man known for his derring-do in such Hong Kong police/gangster flicks as "A Better Tomorrow" and "Hard-Boiled" who must now distinguish himself in a more classic form. Long before he arrives, a team led by Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping ("The Matrix") has been busily setting up and testing the necessary steel wire rigging and supplemental effects. To test things out, the team has a stunt double "fly" through the air a dozen times, lifting him with wire supports attached to a body harness, and makes adjustments until the desired trajectory is achieved.

"For me, this is a dream come true," says Lee, who fell under the spell of early martial arts flicks seen in his native Taiwan--low-tech as they were at the time. Plodding around the set, the director pauses now and then to watch the preparations, but since stunt work is not his expertise, he spends most of the time behind the set--literally, behind a 30-foot-high wall of scenery, in a makeshift area set up with chair, video monitor and electric heaters.

This is a film with a lot of heat on it. An award-winner and crowd-pleaser at festivals around the world--including Cannes, Toronto and New York--it could be the first Chinese-language film to become a mainstream hit, with its unique mix of martial arts choreography, romance and even feminism--the central characters are highly independent women.

Still, a film shoot consists mostly of long stretches of tedium interspersed with brief ignitions of movie magic, and this one, on a wintry day last year at the Beijing Film Studio, is no exception--even for a film whose pedigree is as distinguished as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Lee has won international acclaim ("The Wedding Banquet," "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm"), while Hong Kong veterans Yeoh ("Police Story III: Supercop," "Tomorrow Never Dies") and Chow ("The Corruptors," "Anna and the King") have burgeoning careers in the West.

Throw in two promising young Chinese stars--Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Yimou's new discovery, from China, and Chang Chen ("Happy Together") from Taiwan--and a swashbuckling script based on a martial arts classic by the celebrated storyteller Wang Du Lu--and it's still a bit of a grind. Especially in China, where the studios are decidedly unglamorous--big hangars with peeling paint and cement floors, and toilets that constantly overflow. Today the temperatures inside are as freezing as the ones outside because, by government dictate, heating should not be turned on until Nov. 15.

So everyone is huddled in parkas, and the lucky few sit near portable heaters. Zhang Ziyi, bundled up in an oversized green People's Liberation Army coat, seems to have cornered the market and has got half a dozen units surrounding her as she sits in one corner. The actors wait in a shared dressing room or on the sidelines until called, while stars Chow and Yeoh enjoy the Hollywood-esque luxury of their own trailers.

Then the moment finally comes, the crew has finished its preparations. Suddenly, all that is magic about movie-making starts to ignite. The energy level shoots up as Chow, a tall, charismatic man even in a Qing Dynasty robe, arrives on set. In this climactic scene, he has to fly about 15 feet through the air and thrust his blade into the enemy. Crew members are bustling about, shouting louder.

Despite being pressed for time, they must first observe an industry ritual before the camera rolls. The technical staffers are mostly from Hong Kong, meaning they are highly superstitious about anything that involves risk, and light sticks of incense as prayer to the powers that be. Three sticks are given to Chow, who takes them and obligingly holds them up to his forehead and gives a short bow in four directions.

They rig him up: two wires on either side of his back, two leading from the front, with the attachments hidden under the folds of his robe. Because wires can now be wiped out by computer in post-production, they are able to use thicker wires than before, which permits broader and more controlled movements.

Even with computer technology available, however, stunt master Yuen believes that actual moving bodies are far superior to digital effects. "It never looks quite right," he says about people seen "flying" completely through computer-generated means. "It still requires people doing it."

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