Although "Pushing Hands" is the last to arrive, it is the first of what has been called writer-director Ang Lee's "Father Knows Best" trilogy, in which a parent confronts a changing world. It includes "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman."
It's also Lee's debut feature, filmed in New York and suburban Westchester in 1991. As such, it hasn't quite the scope of his subsequent films, but it does have much of their warmth and wisdom. It begins on a somber note, sketching a near-silent day in an expensive, tasteful modern home in a woodsy suburb. Seventy-year-old Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung, who also plays the father in the two later films) goes about his solitary rituals, exercising, preparing his food, watching Chinese videos while his writer daughter-in-law Martha (Deb Snyder) sits at her computer in the next room in increasing desperation. She lashes out at the father-in-law who knows no English--"No metal in the microwave!"--and thrusts earphones at him.
In time we learn that the widowed Mr. Chu, a tai chi master, has arrived from Beijing to live with his son's family only about a month earlier and that his presence is making it impossible for Martha to work. Lee doesn't set up this situation as deftly as he does conflicts in his subsequent films. He makes us feel that Martha is unnecessarily unsympathetic--that he's loaded the dice in making her such a shrew, especially since her father-in-law is clearly a nice, well-meaning man freshly arrived in a new and vastly different world. (Simply installing a door, for example, between the living room and Martha's workroom surely would be a help.)
Nonetheless, Lee has set Mr. Chu's story in motion, which involves the cruel discovery that American society by and large really makes no time (or space) for its older generation, a shocking realization for a Chinese and a painful predicament for Mr. Chu's loving son Alex (Bo Z. Wang). A picture that gets better as it goes along, "Pushing Hands" simultaneously grows deeper and funnier as Chu commences working out his own destiny.
"Pushing Hands' " title refers to a tai chi exercise designed to help you keep your balance while destroying that of your opponent, and therefore suggests Chu's struggle against his fate. It is a lovingly observed, nicely acted, human comedy with Lung emerging as the shrewd, witty delight he is in all three Lee films.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film is appropriate for all ages.
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'Pushing Hands' Sihung Lung: Mr. Chu Lai Wang: Mrs. Chen Bo Z. Wang: Alex Chu Deb Snyder: Martha Chu Haan LeeL Jeremy Chu A CFP Distribution release. Writer-director Ang Lee. With additional scenes written by James Schmaus. Producers Ted Hope, Schmaus, Emily Liu and Lee. Executive producer Jiang Feng-Chyi. Cinematographer Jong Lin. Editor Tim Squyres. In Mandarin and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6860.