About a week before Ocean’s Eleven (2001) came out, I saw the original with Frank Sinatra et als (1960). It was terrible. All the more reason to love the Steven Soderbergh version. He took the bare bones of the original but did some pretty serious rewriting and major character development to give us style, humor, better actors, and a better ending.

Just think what you could do with a film like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which is already pretty good. It’s just too long and has some other issues as I’ll detail below. As I occasionally like to offer up my own brilliant plot ideas for an eager reading audience, here’s my advice to Hollywood: tweak this story and you’ve got box office gold!

The original story centers on Ku (Shih Jun), a mild-mannered, unambitious scholar in a small village who refuses to follow his mother’s advice and apply for a better-paid job in the magistrate’s office. One day he encounters two strangers: first, he’s commissioned to paint a portrait of a sinister-looking man named Ouyang (Tien Peng); and second, that night he hears strange noises coming from the abandoned and reputedly haunted house across the way. When he investigates, he’s spooked by a strange and ghostly figure who later proves to be Miss Yang (Hsu Feng, above), a laconic, unsmiling, beautiful woman on the run from a corrupt official who wants to execute her and has hired Ouyang to do it. Ku teams up with her to help (as much as a clumsy scholar can), and the remainder of the film traces their attempts to escape. It culminates with a terrific battle scene in a bamboo forest with some kickass Buddhist monks, which shows this film’s influences on later wuxia greats like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).

The dvd copy I got, a simple VHS-to-DVD transfer, shows the film’s abundant wear & tear — all those night scenes are almost too muddy to see, and you often see scratches or grit on the film itself. At just over 3 hours it’s long and seems to end 3 different times. Still, this tale has great characters, terrific fight scenes (including one in a bamboo forest that has huge potential for re-imagining, and not just in a Crouching Tiger imitation way), and — best of all — a ghost-story subtheme.

Nor does it need to be set during the typical wuxia never-never land of an unspecified past of swordsmen and secretive martial arts sects. In fact, I can imagine a great modern version taking place amongst Chinese Americans of a 1940s San Francisco or perhaps one of its agricultural regions nearby, like Watsonville or Gilroy, during the same era that saw the internment of Japanese Americans. Can’t you just imagine the final fight scene taking place in a redwood forest or a eucalyptus grove, or perhaps on the oceanside cliffs south of Monterey? (Hollywood: call me and we’ll talk. My screenwriting and/or consulting rates are shockingly affordable.)

No matter the setting, the first order of business is to switch up the protagonist. In the original, our hero(?) is Ku, the bumbling scholar — but although we need to start with him, once we meet Miss Yang she needs to supplant him as protagonist. (I mean, even us bumbling scholars don’t really like to see ourselves as protagonists.) Ku pales in comparison. He reminds me of that creepy dude in my college dorm, the one who always seemed to leer at you from his doorway. Miss Yang could also use more of a back story, as well as clearer motivations to explain, for one, why in the world she has sex with Ku, with his creepy toothiness and weird makeup. (The Feminéma rewrite might have to find a more Chow Yun Fat-style sexual partner for Yang. Mmmmm.)

Second: don’t drop the creepy haunted-house subtheme midway through the film. The film’s first half takes place on the best set ever: a lonely, run-down village, at the center of which is a hauntingly memorable abandoned home and compound that used to belong to a military general. What a set it makes. The white plumes of the tall, ghostlike pampas grass constantly block your view of what’s going on. Spiderwebs everywhere — fabulous! It provides the setting for one of the film’s best big fight scenes, during which our heroes scare the bad guys by making them think real ghosts are attacking them on all sides. Afterward, however, we leave the haunted house and don’t return.

I say you can bring it back in with the Super-Dooper mystical Buddhist monks, who make a couple of handy appearances in the film’s second half. No matter how this story gets rewritten, the monks stay in.

Best of all, just imagine the possibilities if our sword-carrying heroine and her monk friends are not just battling corruption (Californians trying to grab Chinese-American land and business as well as those belonging to Japanese Americans, possibly?) but also World War II, nativism, and 1940s sexism. It could be a cross between blaxploitation and wuxia — with just enough historical and place-specific context to make it interesting.

Hollywood, remember how much money Crouching Tiger made? It ranked as the 19th most profitable film worldwide of 2000 and raked 44 film prizes from 14 different awards-granting institutions.

Now, finally: a title. A Touch of Zen might sound a bit too tame for the action I foresee.

  • Zen and the Art of Surviving a War?
  • Zenifornia
  • Mod Zen Explosion?
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I’m no fool: I know you’ve already seen Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so I’m not going to insult your intelligence by recounting the plot. This is a post for fellow fans who’ve also watched this film with that odd mixture of wonder and delight. Watching this film again reminded me how much I actually laughed out loud at some of the action sequences in which these amazing martial arts experts’ legs move, cartoon-like, as they fly up the sides of buildings, across rooftops, or from the tip-top of a bamboo shoot to another. I wasn’t laughing exactly because it was ridiculous, or because it was funny, although it came up right next to those. I laughed because I could not blink lest I miss something. How, I ask, is it possible for this film to mix in what you might otherwise say are ridiculous action elements — elements that actually provoke an unusual kind of awe-struck laughter — yet never, ever lose its audience?

I have two answers for you — and the first is, because of the contrasting love stories, of course. Let’s start with the heartbreaking quietness between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), each expert in the fighting arts. Now having reached middle age, they’ve longed for each other for years, but have been kept apart by their mutual dedication to custom. In the quietest, most restrained way, Mu Bai is now willing to set the sword aside — as well as his vows to his warrior order — to be with Shu Lien at last. In every interaction, we see these two hesitantly move toward each other, acknowledge their love; yet each scene is marked by their continued hesitation. It’s like a great 19th-c. novel, in which the character feel deep passion but must never touch one another.

And holy crap, Michelle Yeoh! and Chow Yun-Fat! Was there ever a more beautiful and self-possessed pair in filmic history? I remember way back when I saw it in the theater, the local reviewer called Yeoh “the thinking man’s hubba-hubba,” which captures as perfectly as I can imagine how watchable she is, how intelligent she appears, and how convincingly she appears in all those fight sequences. (See here for a nice piece on Yeoh by our friend JustMeMike.) You’d never guess she’d never taken a martial arts class in her life, but choreographs her fight sequences using her years of dance training.

If Shu Lien and Mu Bai are the pinnacles of reserved, cool-headed longing for one another, the love between Jen (Zhang Ziyi) and Lo (Chang Chen) is all passion and fire and impulsiveness. Even though she’s now set to marry another, Jen cannot forget Lo, the mountain bandit with whom she lived all those months. Theirs is a classic hate-at-first-sight romance, just like in classic bodice-ripping Harlequin romances; theirs are the most unrestrained, vicious wrestling matches ever filmed between a man and woman (I believe this the proper use of “wrastling”), which transmogrify satisfactorily into passionate, genuinely turn-you-on lovemaking.So that’s the first thing: the contrast of the yearning, reserved restraint of Yeoh/Chow, and the woo-hoo! of Zheng/Chang. The second thing is the feminism, which is so overwhelming and explicit I can’t believe no one made much of it at the time. And it’s not just that the fight sequences always feature women — who win — nor that the best sequence faces off Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in the very best, funniest, most exciting matchup ever. The heart of the story relies on the fact that its three main female characters (Jen, Shu Lien, and Jen’s governess, Jade Fox) have each been foiled in their attempts to live as they desire because they are women. Each takes a different approach in response, and they inevitably find themselves in opposition with one another as well as with men.

Let me be clear: the feminism is explicit and exciting throughout this film, and gives it a conceptual drumbeat that makes the film unexpectedly exhilarating. (With sentences like that, can you tell I’ve been reading James Agee’s film reviews?) The terrific fight sequence between Shu Lien and Jen is partly so thrilling because you don’t know who to root for — or, more precisely, you don’t know whether you can root for the impetuous, talented Jen over Shu Lien. As you watch Jen with the “Green Destiny” sword she stole from Mu Bai, you feel a genuine anxiety: you cannot quite believe she’d be winning that fight without it, yet her mastery is delicious. Likewise delicious is Jen’s shootout in the wayside inn, where she dresses as a boy and then flies through the building, defeating every man in her path. Best fight sequence ever.

I’ll admit that the first time I saw this film (and perhaps the second time, too), I was just mesmerized by its humor, action sequences, beauty, creativity. The significance of the contrasting love stories and the on-the-surface feminism weren’t as clear as they are to me now. But when you watch this film again — and I say when because you need to see it again — notice how unabashedly it relies on those two plot elements. And you may still find your jaw dropping open with awe and pleasure.

Fragments

31 August 2011

I’ve been focusing on all manner of academic things this week, so my mind is fragmented. These thoughts don’t add up to anything, but it’s the extent of my ideas about movies and words and women and men.

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the amazing 2000 film from Ang Lee that only gets better on re-viewing except I had to watch it on a TV screen rather than on the very large screen where I saw it, twice, when it came out. Oh, Michelle Yeoh, I worship at your feet. (Stay tuned for more about this film.)

2. A lovely line from the new Tony Kushner play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, coming from the old union laborer’s mouth that expresses something beautiful about what it means to be proud of your labor and your union:

We did something utterly remarkable then, which no one now appreciates, but it was, it was working-class guys, working-class with no, no training, no politics, facing down their fear of being called bums and featherbedders and crooks and insisting not merely on the worker’s right to a wage but the worker’s right to a share in the wealth, a right to be alive, a right to control time itself! When we won the Guaranteed Income, we took hold of the logic of time and money that enriches men like then and devours men like us, and we broke its fucking back.

3. Another lovely fragment from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (overall: it was good). When Joey, the young son leaves his country college and goes to New York for the first time and sees the circus of street life taking place in the city:

every moment was like a poem that he immediately memorized.

4. Kitchen Stories (2003), a funny and sweet Norwegian film by Bent Hamer that should be imported directly into anthropology classes, since it’s a perfect expression of what happens during participant observation. To wit: to understand old Norwegian bachelors’ uses of their kitchens, the observer sets up an umpire’s chair in the corner. What could go wrong?

5. Another fragment, this from Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The teenaged Oscar is in love with a girl, and the two of them begin to talk — long, rambling phone calls that start from nowhere, building on the everyday, yet:

and off they’d gone, building another one of their word-scrapers.

(Díaz: I might’ve gone for word castles, given Oscar’s romantic nature, but I re-read that paragraph four times for the pleasure of it.)

6. Felicity Huffman. We’re watching the ’90s series Sports Night for the first time (overall: it is good) but Huffman is the kind of actress who seems so compelling, far beyond the way her character’s written. As with all of Aaron Sorkin’s women, her character is manic and neurotic. Yet there’s a way Huffman can peer through those eyes, cock an eyebrow (and nobody cocks eyebrows the way she does), and make you want to make out with her. Which reminds me, of course, of her multiple prizewinning turn in Transamerica as the transsexual Bree, during which I could not imagine that she had not once been a man. It makes me so sad that she’s been relegated to Desperate Housewives all this time.