Finger painting

Ang Lee's feature-length debut Pushing Hands established his genius with characterization

The 41-year-old Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee has been granted a rare international honor--unanimous box-office approval from audiences who don't often mix.

His second feature, 1993's The Wedding Banquet, became one of the highest-grossing indie films ever made, and also became a beloved cult treasure that crossed gender, sexual, and ethnic lines with its tale of a Chinese man, his American male lover, his temperamental female best friend, and his very traditional parents.

Last year's even more superb Eat Drink Man Woman scored as the highest-grossing Chinese-language film ever released in America. The tale of an aging master chef who must learn to accept the tangled contemporary love lives of his adult, Westernized daughters touched nearly every possible relationship chord with an empathetic deftness that defied assumptions about marketing.

These were not films "for" Asians any more than The Wedding Banquet could be properly called a "gay" film, or Eat Drink Man Woman a "relationship" drama. Ang Lee merrily knocks down the expectations that culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality place on all of us, in the process creating poignant comedies whose characters scurry to gather and reassemble what Lee--with mischievous benevolence and a respect for the individual uncommon among auteurs--has scattered.

With the art-house success of those two movies and anticipation gathering for Lee's big-budget adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant), Lee is enjoying another very rare honor--the re-release in select major markets of his 1992 feature debut Pushing Hands. This one boasts a raggedy technical sensibility that makes the director's spare second feature look like a Spielberg opus (detail is the hobgoblin of little minds and filmmakers with big budgets, so the first time you see the boom descend into the line of the camera, be charitable).

Pushing Hands is nevertheless as assured, coherent, and skillful a product as any first-time director can expect to make. It is perhaps all the more impressive because Lee has forsaken some of the obvious tricks of precocious first-time filmmakers--hair-pin plots with gimmicky twists, deliberately provocative doses of sex and violence, self-conscious philosophizing about the theme--to risk it all with patient, gentle characterizations.

Ang Lee likes to call his first three features the "Father Knows Best" trilogy. It's a tongue-in-cheek reference to the patriarchy and other traditional systems Lee displays in utter chaos. The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Pushing Hands all feature veteran Chinese actor Sihung Lung portraying some variation of Lee's favorite narrative device--the aging patriarch who navigates a changing world with some clumsiness and ultimately learns more about himself for the effort.

In Pushing Hands, the redoubtable Lung is Mr. Chu, a tai chi master who retires and leaves Beijing to spend his final years in America with his anxious-to-please son Alex (Bo Z. Wang), a computer designer; his tightly wound daughter-in-law Martha (Deb Snyder); and his grandson Jeremy (Haan Lee), a six-year-old who prefers French fries to steamed dumplings. Mr. Chu is deeply depressed over his 11th-hour upheaval, and tries to understand the antagonism of Martha, who has found her own work space disrupted by this grim little man who doesn't speak her language and insists on watching Chinese opera with the TV volume turned up.

The clash of East and West is only the most obvious, and most superficial, thread of tension that's woven through Pushing Hands. The film is much more concerned with the constantly readjusting balance of power in family relationships. Poor Alex is torn between the ancestor-worship of his cultural heritage and a very contemporary American wife who's forced to live with a man not accustomed to headstrong women. In the wonderful democracy of emotions that Ang Lee conjures up, both the father and the wife are not above trying to play on the young man's sympathies; yet we understand it is fear, more than anything else, that motivates their selfishness. Feelings, behavior, and consequences are piled on top of each other with the same harried relentlessness until, as in both The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, the comedy becomes inextricable from the pathos.

When Mr. Chu meets and falls in love with a plainspoken cooking instructor named Mrs. Chen (Lai Wang)--who has herself come from the old country to live with her daughter's family--it's just another layer of hope that is also a source, for Mr. Chu, of great consternation. The lives of everyone in an Ang Lee film are quiet but driven by grand, even operatic themes of tradition and family responsibility. Even coming, for most American audiences, at the end of his trilogy, the first entry Pushing Hands is another indelible image in Ang Lee's sublime family triptych.

Pushing Hands. CFP Distribution. Sihung Lung, Lai Wang, Bo Z. Wang. Written by Ang Lee and James Schamus. Directed by Ang Lee. Now showing.

 
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