SCMP Thursday, February 15, 2001

Crouching Tiger leaps into Oscar history

REUTERS in Los Angeles

Ang Lee's martial arts fantasy ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' made the Oscar record books last night, only days after becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history.
The Mandarin-language movie, which mixes gravity-defying fight scenes and sword play with heart-wrenching romance, nabbed 10 Academy Award nominations on Tuesday, including nods for best picture, best foreign-language film and best director for Taiwanese-born filmmaker Lee.
That makes ''Crouching Tiger'' the first subtitled release to win double-digit Oscar nominations, the seventh ever to pick up a best-picture nod and the first Asian film to do so.
The SAR's Peter Pau was nominated in the cinematography category. And Tim Yip got nominations for both Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction.
It is only the third movie nominated both as best foreign-language film and best picture. The two others - ''Life is Beautiful'' and ''Z'' - went on to win the foreign-language Oscars. But no film that made its viewers read subtitles has ever garnered Hollywood's highest honour.
But commercially, ''Crouching Tiger'' has done what few foreign films have managed to do in the United States - gain a mass audience.
The movie surpassed Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning Holocaust tale ''Life is Beautiful'' last weekend as the biggest-grossing foreign-language film ever released in North America, with more than US$60 million (HK$467 million) in box office receipts to date.
Its showing on 1,200 screens ranks as the widest US-Canadian release of any subtitled movie. The movie has grossed US$100 million (HK$779 million) worldwide.
The film's American success surprised Lee, who said he originally intended ''Crouching Tiger'' as a film for Chinese audiences after making a series of English-language films, including the Jane Austen period piece ''Sense and Sensibility'' and the 1970s wife-swapping, suburban drama ''The Ice Storm''.
''Here, all that's happening now is really a bonus,'' he said from his production office in New York. ''It's not something you can calculate and try to hit.'' Last month, Lee won the Golden Globe Award as best director for ''Crouching Tiger''.
Ironically, the film has drawn a collective critical shrug in China, where reviews were at odds with the stir it has created among American moviegoers.
After gaining early attention last year on the film festival circuit, ''Crouching Tiger'' opened in December on just six New York screens and quickly blossomed from an art house sensation into a mainstream hit as distributor Sony Pictures Classics widened its release.
Described by one critic as ''Sense and Sensibility'' with a body count, the film has proved to have far greater appeal than the average martial arts flick.
Starring Hong Kong's Chow Yun Fat and Malayian Michelle Yeoh as love-torn Qing dynasty warriors in 19th-century China, the film blends exotic locations and romance with dazzling fight scenes choreographed by SAR stunt master Yuen Wo-Ping, who staged action sequences for ''The Matrix''.
Much of the action is airborne, with duels fought on roofs and treetops. The movie bears a unique feminist bent, with powerful, independent women characters driving much of the action.
Strangely, the film emerged as the second-most nominated film overall this year without any acting nods, earning the balance of its accolades for its screenplay, its music and such craft categories as costumes, cinematography and editing.
Although Lee said he does not view the Academy Awards as a competition, ''Crouching Tiger's'' showing in Tuesday's nominations thrusts the filmmaker back into the Oscar spotlight after being largely overlooked in past years.
''Sense and Sensibility'' received seven Oscar nominations in 1996, none of them for direction, and garnered just one win (for best adapted screenplay), while ''Ice Storm'' was shut out of the Oscars altogether two years later.