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Saturday, 17 March, 2001, 08:22 GMT
Tiger's runaway success
Chang Chen and Zhang Ziyi
Capturing the imagination: Chang Chen and Zhang Ziyi
By New York entertainment correspondent Tom Brook

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has made movie history with US box office receipts over the $100m mark.

This martial arts fantasy from director Ang Lee, which has 10 Oscar nominations, has become an unexpected blockbuster that has broken all records for a foreign language film.

The picture, now playing on more than 1,700 screens, has proved to be a big hit with mainstream audiences, particularly among women and young people.

Foreign language pictures are rarely distributed outside the major American cities, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is now being shown at multiplexes in the US heartland.

Michelle Yeoh
The martial arts element is attracting a younger audience
Doug Freed, from Landmark Theatres, the biggest exhibitor of foreign language pictures in the US, is also surprised at the breadth of the film's appeal.

"It's crossing over. I think a younger audience is going to see the martial arts, and an older audience is going to see the romance," he said.

"It's not just playing to a traditional specialized film crowd, which is an older, urban audience - it's playing to an inner city crowd. It's playing to the suburbs as well."

Part of the reason for the film's success is that it operates on many different levels. It is a love story, a martial arts fantasy with a feminist twist and an historical epic set against a backdrop of spectacular locations in China.

The film also combines old-fashioned storytelling with sophisticated technology that enables the characters to perform gravity-defying stunts.

As Ang Lee sees it, the film is a romantic fantasy that has done well because it is not that far from Hollywood filmmaking, the old school of filmmaking.

"People go to a fantasy and enjoy an emotional tour. That's a wake-up call for many, many good things, I hope."

Michelle Yeoh
Michelle Yeoh: Director Ang Lee inspired by feminism in Chinese opera
But by today's formulaic standards Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a very non-Hollywood storyline with its tale of thwarted love, a heroine who commits suicide and a leading man who dies.

Many moviegoers report they find the unexpected twists in the story inspiring, a refreshing alternative to more predictable mainstream blockbusters.

Another factor in the film's success is that many young Americans have a growing desire to see stylized martial arts sequences on the big screen.

Young moviegoers were certainly drawn to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because they knew it made use of the talents of choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, who had also worked on the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix.

But Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the film's distributors in America, thinks there are deeper reasons why Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has stirred such interest.

Barker, who has conducted a very effective marketing strategy for the film, said: "Ang was inspired by the feminism that exists in Chinese opera, by the qualities that males love in the male fantasy of Eastern martial arts movies and by the psychoanalytical process that came from the West.

Ang Lee
Ang Lee: Film has "broadened sense of what is mainstream"
"I think this movie is a combination of all of those things. That gives it such depth and that's why the audience take to it so much, because there's so much in it."

Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has broken US box office records for a foreign language film there is a debate as to whether or not it is going to make it easier to market non-English speaking pictures in the future.

US audiences are notoriously resistant to subtitles.

But Doug Freed at Landmark Theatres said: "One of the challenges we have with subtitled movies is that the people who go to subtitled movies in this country tend to be an older audience.

"We have to introduce a new audience, a younger audience, to the task of seeing films with subtitles. We think this movie is going to go a long way towards people giving subtitles a chance."

Watershed

But many film industry experts inject a note of caution. They see Crouching Tiger as a one-off phenomenon, a movie fantasy that can be digested without paying too close attention to the subtitles.

As a result they think it's unlikely this picture will create a huge surge of interest from US moviegoers in other Asian or European subtitled films.

However, many do regard Crouching Tiger as a watershed event that may have a far-reaching impact on audiences, in that this unexpected international blockbuster has redefined the definition of popular film.

As Ang Lee puts it, this picture "has broadened people's sense of mainstream filmmaking".

"Other cultures can do it as well. We can enjoy it and embrace it - share each other's storytelling experiences. I think it's a wonderful thing."

By all accounts, Crouching Tiger's success story is still in the making. It stands poised to do well at next week's Oscars ceremony where it has a very good chance of picking up several trophies.

If it does win big it may give the top players in the industry a major jolt and make them realize that there is a mass audience that will accept intelligent film fantasies that break many of the Hollywood rules.



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