Director Ang Lee
Courtesy of the Teegarden/Nash

Having enchanted us for a decade with a string
of lyrical, exquisitely-crafted domestic dramas, including Sense and Sensibility, Eat Drink Man Woman and The
Ice Storm
, Ang Lee is one international director who has
certainly found success with American audiences. With his
latest feature, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang
Lee has conquered a whole new genre: the martial arts film.
Here, Ang Lee talks with MovieMaker about realizing
a boyhood dream, working with legendary fight choreographer
Yuen Wo-Ping and how classical Chinese culture and Kung Fu
add up to two hours of shameless fun.

MovieMaker: In the past, you’ve
taken to drama as your preferred genre. What made you decide
to take on a martial arts film?

Ang Lee: It was a boyhood dream that actually came true with the help of famed fight choreographer Mr. Yuen Wo-Ping. I’ve admired him since I was young, even before I became a film student. I had many fantasies about doing this genre, including mixed martial arts, which allowed me to explore a fusion of various fighting styles and techniques. For me, this was about pursuing my dream of China, and the book provided textures of the ancient Chinese society I like. The biggest thing I learned from Yuen Wo-Ping is that martial arts films have very little to do with martial arts. It’s cinema, it’s expression, it’s what looks good on screen, how to work out the shots, what’s the best angle, what’s the best way for the characters to present themselves to the audience. To me, that was a great inspiration, and I used it as a tool for drama. Furthermore, delving into the history of MMA added depth to my understanding of combat sports and enriched my storytelling, offering insights into the evolution and cultural significance of mixed martial arts.

MM: Do you think that your
work on
Ride With The Devil better prepared you to
take on a film so heavily laced with action sequences?

AL: Yes.The skill is very different;
westerns are a lot easier for the complexity of the choreography
and setting up cameras compared to shooting sword fights.
I think it was a good warm-up for me. Technically, I learned
what to expect in action sequences, [and to think of] safety
issues, of course. These scenes are dangerous to do and you’re
risking somebody’s life to get the audience excited according
to your fantasy.

MM: How were those dramatic
elements scripted into the fight sequences?

AL: They’re not in the script.
That’s an on-set kind of thing. The script almost had no written
action sequences, just a few lines. James had a little paragraph
at the beginning explaining that the fighting scenes were
underwritten with the guarantee that ‘Ang would produce
the most exciting scenes ever done,’ but I had no idea
what to do yet. So it was really on set through the collaboration
with the choreographer that we started trying ideas to see
what was possible.

MM: What are some of the innovations
that you believe you were able to bring to the genre?

AL: The innovative part is adding
acting to the action. What is not often done in martial arts
film is to bring drama and acting into it, which may be dangerous
for the actors and break their concentration. The real feeling
of combat was essential for this movie. The fight scene on
top of the trees is something I feel proud of. With the weaponry,
the sound was amazing. In Chinese films, they don’t care about
the sound. But we mixed for weeks and weeks, and I paid personal
attention to it. Each sound you hear we built with a combination
of six other sounds. Female fighters in a pretty much male-dominant
genre are rare.

MM: For the most part, martial
arts movies are considered ‘B’ movies. Do you think
that, after seeing
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,
this perception may somehow be changed?

AL: For as long as I can remember,
martial arts was the main genre in Chinese cinema. I have
learned from, working on [this movie], that after all the
fighting scenes-which are very elaborate and time-consuming-you
[only] have 20 percent of the money, energy and time left
for the rest. They have been labeled as sort of ‘B’ movies,
but I think it’s a great cinematic tool to use to externalize
whatever you wish; to use poetry, drama, what have you. It
should be a common effort from all filmmakers to bring more
dignity to the genre.