Chris Nashawaty
November 17, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

”Crouching Tiger” and a U.S. audience

It happens 15 minutes into the film. You can set your watch to it. That’s when two Chinese warriors literally fly over moonlit rooftops, skipping like stones across a midnight pond. Asses get whupped in a zero-gravity ballet. And without fail, audiences erupt into wild applause.

It happened at Cannes, where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the hit of the Croisette. And then, at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — where the martial-arts romance made its North American debut — the scene was repeated once again… only bigger and louder. The packed house of 2,800 didn’t just clap. As the opening show-stopper swept to its climax, some gasped for air; others just stared at the screen in disbelief.

As Crouching Tiger waltzed away from the festival with its People’s Choice Award, it seemed obvious that the film’s next move would be to simply roll across the border to the States and snowball into an international phenomenon.

If only it were that easy.

In Chinese, the word for crisis and opportunity is one and the same. And nowhere does that sage bit of Eastern philosophy seem more fitting than in the case of Crouching Tiger. Because despite the movie’s dazzling action sequences (choreographed by The Matrix‘s Yuen Wo-Ping), its pairing of familiar Hong Kong superstars Chow Yun-Fat (The Replacement Killers) and Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies), and its acclaimed director, Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm), it is quite undeniably in Mandarin Chinese, not English.

”We don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Lee. ”We hope it can be more than an art-house film, but honestly, who knows?” Perhaps sensing an opportunity where others might see crisis, the film’s American distributor seems bullish. ”Over the past few years there have been subtitled pictures that have been real breakouts,” insists Sony Pictures Classics’ copresident Michael Barker. ”I mean, Dances With Wolves had subtitles! And then there’s Life Is Beautiful and Il Postino. So I don’t think subtitles are really an issue.” Adds cowriter and executive producer James Schamus: ”The most comforting thing I’ve heard from people coming out of this movie is ‘After 10 minutes, I forgot it was subtitled!’ To me, that was a grain of hope.”

Still, there’s no denying that lately Asian imports have had a harder time Stateside than other foreign films, with the exception of a few poorly dubbed Jackie Chan flicks. In fact, the highest-grossing subtitled Asian film in the U.S. is the 1997 Japanese romantic comedy Shall We Dance?, which earned $9.5 million. ”In America, that’s always the thing — subtitles,” says Yeoh, who in her clingy blue sweater looks more like a ’40s glamour queen than a fierce action heroine. She says that the filmmakers flirted with the idea of shooting Crouching Tiger in English, but ”if we did the film in English it would lose something. It would have been the easy way out.”

With luck, it won’t matter. In fact, it’s possible that Crouching Tiger may be more universal than its subtitles suggest: On one hand, the film’s adrenalized eye candy makes it an easy sell to PlayStation-addled fanboys; on the other, its sweeping historical love story and empowered female characters make it appealing to the Lifetime demo. Then again, that mix might just alienate both groups. ”Ang always described the film to me as ‘Sense and Sensibility with martial arts,”’ says Yeoh with a giggle.

With the faraway gaze of a man rewinding his life story in his head, Ang Lee sinks back in a black leather chair at Sony’s Manhattan headquarters. Recalling the youth he spent in Taiwan’s movie houses, Lee had no clue that those afternoons would become research for a film he’d make decades later. But six years ago, when Lee read the Chinese novel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he sensed he could turn it into a throwback to the epics he’d loved as a kid. So, while he and Schamus were finishing the Civil War drama Ride With the Devil, they worked double time adapting the saga, from Chinese to English and then back to Chinese. ”We had a great time making Ride With the Devil,” says Lee. ”But first Universal dumped it… and so it went to USA Films, and I don’t think they knew what to do with it. We were thankful to have Crouching Tiger to look forward to.”

They weren’t the only thankful ones. After wrapping Anna and the King, Chow was about to take a vacation with his wife. But when Jet Li fell through as Crouching Tiger‘s leading man, Chow received a call from the director he’d long hoped to work with. ”So I went to my wife and said, ‘What if we take an even longer vacation later?”’ Chow says. Although the actor was more used to pointing a pair of guns than busting out his kung fu, he says he was drawn to the film by a fight scene in which his character soars atop a lush bamboo forest.

Crouching Tiger‘s weightless battles — accomplished by harnessing the actors onto cables that were later digitally removed — are a specialty of Hong Kong cinema. ”It’s like Fred Astaire-style action,” says Lee. ”In the movies I saw as a child, anything like this could happen. It was fantasy, but in a very Chinese way. It’s just the way a repressed country lets it all out — that’s what we mean by ‘Hidden Dragon.'”

Despite all of its technical razzmatazz, Crouching Tiger cost just $12 million, and the film has opened so well throughout Asia that it’s already in the black. But Sony Pictures Classics seems almost cocky about pulling off a U.S. hit — not to mention one it thinks can grab Oscar nominations for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. ”Everything we’ve done in our whole careers has been in anticipation of a movie like this,” says copresident Tom Bernard, predicting that Crouching Tiger will be the company’s biggest movie ever (the studio refuses to speculate on numbers and says it has no plans for an English-dubbed version). Mirroring the gradual-release blueprint of American Beauty, Crouching Tiger will open in New York on Dec. 8 and Los Angeles the following week. By Dec. 22, it will be in the top 50 markets. Then, after waiting out the splashier Christmas fare, SPC plans to plow the film onto 800-plus screens.

And if all that doesn’t vault Crouching Tiger into a subtitled success, the studio has a backup plan: ”We just did a word-of-mouth screening for the hip-hop community with the members of the Wu-Tang Clan,” says Bernard. ”And we also made the film available for both the New York Yankees and Mets.” Who knows? Maybe all it takes to turn Mandarin into moola is a couple of unlikely marketing gurus named Mike Piazza and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

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