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Expecting to 'Flop,' He Made History

Ang Lee dreamed China would embrace his 'Tiger,' but instead, the U.S.--and the academy--did.


If someone had told director Ang Lee two years ago that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" would be nominated for 10 Oscars in the same week that it became the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time, he might have thought he'd been in the bamboo rain forest for too long.

At the time, Lee was in the middle of a nightmarish shoot in a Chinese rain forest. He found a way to convince the film's martial arts choreographer that the actors could indeed defy the laws of gravity and mount a sword fight atop the trees' thin branches. Western audiences, he was told, would not buy those flying scenes.

On Tuesday, Lee's belief in "Crouching Tiger," a martial-arts romance styled after the movies Lee loved as a boy in Taiwan, was vindicated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gave the movie a record number of nominations for a foreign-language film. It's been a long, hard journey for Lee--and the Oscar nominations meant he had officially arrived.

"I have not slept at all, but I'm hyper," said Lee, who was up all night filming a short movie in New Jersey. "By 8 o'clock in the morning I hit traffic coming in from New Jersey to New York and then when I was checking into the hotel I was told about the nominations. By the time I got to my room all the press was there, jumping up and down. I have been talking nonstop since then."

Before the film was released here, Lee was fearful it would be his third "flop" at the U.S. box office, following "Ride with the Devil" and "The Ice Storm."

"I think you only get three times to flop and frankly I thought this one would be the third one," he said. "I was very confused the whole time we were filming."

Despite his fame as a filmmaker, Lee ("The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility") and his producing partner James Schamus had to fight to cobble together enough money from around the world to make the film. Once they secured financing, Lee demanded so much of his actors that a few came away with injuries, and one actress--who was offered the part that 21-year-old Zhang Ziyi eventually got--turned it down because it was too much work. He battled with the film's famed choreographer, Yuen Wo-Ping, about the fight/flight scenes, insisting that they be included in the movie.

Lee acknowledges he would never do it again, but that success feels oh-so-good.

"It starts to feel less like we created something and more like this is a cultural phenomenon and we are just participating," he said by phone from New York. "There is a very emotional connection with movies--we get easily bored by life and we need fantasy. Certain repressions get released spending two hours in a dark room. When it happens it is wonderful and it becomes a fantasy release."

"Crouching Tiger," has surpassed the previous North American box-office record for a foreign-language film--$55 million for Roberto Begnini's "Life Is Beautiful"--bringing in more than $100 million worldwide, $62 million of it in the U.S. The film's distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, is planning to increase the number of screens from 1,200 to 1,600 nationwide.

On Tuesday, an exhausted Lee was so swamped with calls that he had not even contacted the film's stars, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat, by midmorning.

Lee admits he is stunned by the the film's success in the U.S. and Europe. The movie did not do well in China, where it was hampered by a late release and the Chinese audience's lack of interest in fantasy martial arts.

"I dreamed that the Chinese audience would embrace it," he said. "But it's a country that had banned the [martial-arts] genre for 40 years. It was not properly released or guided by critics. I just feel bad that it wasn't given a fair shot."

Lee's film is also the first Asian film nominated for best picture. Only six other non-English language films have ever been nominated for best picture, including France's "La Grande Ilusion" in 1938 and "Z" in 1969, Sweden's "The Emigrants" in 1972 and "Cries and Whispers" in 1973, Italy's "Il Postino" in 1995 and "Life Is Beautiful" in 1998. None has won.

The director is working on finishing his scripts for his next projects, a musical as well as a film adaptation of "The Hulk" for Universal and a film about Houdini with no studio attached.

This year's nominations are a sweet validation for Lee, considering the academy snubbed him in 1995 when his first English-language film, "Sense and Sensibility," was nominated for best actress, screenplay and best picture, but not best director.

"I wasn't angry about it. It just happened that way," he said. "The real agony is that I have to answer questions like 'How do I feel?' The Chinese press is all over me! Personally I don't believe in film competition, but it's a great honor."

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