There are many reasons why this shouldn’t have been a hit in the states.
1. It is subtitled. American audiences rarely go for that.
2. The pretty darn long fight scenes, choreographed by the Yuen Wo Ping (made famous in the U.S. by The Matrix), are interspersed with dramatic scenes (Ang Lee also directed Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm)…an uneasy blend for many.
3. It is based on a Hong Kong genre in which martial artists can essentially fly, which some could see as silly.
4. It has a decidedly non-Hollywood ending that requires processing.
But it was a huge hit, first critically and then commercially. The acting is incredible. The cinematography blossoms from subtly picturesque (mostly indoor and darkness scenes early on) to David Lean-esque panoramas by the second half. The music similarly starts out subdued and gradually lifts off into soaring, haunting melodies by Tan Dun featuring Yo Yo Ma on the cello.
This movie is clearly a labor of love by Ang Lee, and transports me to a magical world of immense beauty and depth. It’s not a place I would’ve expected American audiences to want to visit, but it heartens me to know they did.
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Copyright 2002 by Toby Baldwin
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