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‘Crouching Tiger’ Can’t Hide From Bad Reviews in China

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crouching tiger, hidden who?

As moviegoers pack U.S. theaters to see director Ang Lee’s acclaimed martial-arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” audiences in the country where the film is set have been seriously underwhelmed.

For every American critic who has put the movie on a Top 10 list, a Chinese reviewer has responded with shrugging indifference--or even scathing contempt.

An “exquisite film,” raved Newsweek magazine. “As unrealistic and exaggerated as a video game,” scoffed a popular Beijing consumer weekly.

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“You can’t take your eyes off” actor Chow Yun Fat, declared Vanity Fair. Not so, countered the Beijing Evening News: “Chow’s performance is . . . laughable. It seems he is still unable to shake his midlife crisis.”

The wildly divergent views are puzzling for a film that would appear to be a sure bet here. After all, its director is ethnic Chinese, its plot is based on a Chinese novel, its scenes were shot entirely in China, and its stars are so famous that the immigration line at Beijing’s airport was held up for 45 minutes as customs officials pressed Chow for autographs.

But all of “Crouching Tiger’s” seeming advantages could not overcome audience expectations for a genre the Chinese invented--the kung fu flick--or the behind-the-scenes trouble the movie ran into with official film gremlins here in a land where state control of the movie industry remains tight.

The film’s weak showing in China illustrates the potential pitfalls ahead for Hollywood as it eagerly awaits Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which will slowly crack open the Chinese market.

As with so many industries, show business can run aground here on a misjudgment of consumer tastes, Communist Party politics and the fickleness of Chinese officials, whose behavior is hard to predict and impossible to ignore.

Then too, there is the video piracy so rampant here that probably the majority of the film’s detractors paid only a fraction of the ticket price to see it.

In this case, a squabble with government cadres over profits and distribution rights helped deliver an early body blow to “Crouching Tiger’s” prospects from which the film was unable to recover.

The rights to release the film in China were shared by a private production firm, Asian Union Film & Entertainment, and the China Film Co-Production Co., one of 16 state-run film companies in China. Government regulations require all foreign films to have a state firm involved in the movie’s release--a provision Hollywood finds grating.

For “Crouching Tiger,” Asian Union put up 80% of the $1-million cost while its government partner invested 20%.

But once China Film got an inkling that the movie might be an international smash--it caused a sensation at Cannes in May--state officials wanted to freeze out Asian Union, industry insiders say. China Film tried to fire Asian Union, or at least buy out the private company’s majority share, in a move that Asian Union refused to agree to.

In the meantime, officials pulled the movie from theaters almost immediately after its glitzy premiere in Beijing in July, just as the film was being released across Asia in a regionwide publicity blitz.

And there the movie sat, on the shelf, for three crucial months as China Film apparently tried to drive Asian Union to a death by a thousand cuts, with a slew of vague objections to and conditions for screening the film.

“Nobody ever said anything specific,” recalled Dong Ping, chairman of Asian Union. “It was all very vague, things like ‘There’s no good release date available,’ or ‘It can only be shown during such-and-such a period,’ or ‘You have to let some [domestic] films hit the theaters first in the run-up to National Day [Oct. 1].’ ”

Sources close to the film say Dong was under extra pressure from the government because of his association with “Devils on the Doorstep,” a widely admired movie about the Japanese occupation of China that was banned by censors after Dong’s firm sent it to Cannes without official permission.

In the end, China Film seemed to capitulate over “Crouching Tiger.” It told Asian Union that the film could be released after all--with such short notice that the firm had no time to remarket the movie.

By then, the streets were flooded with pirated DVD and video compact disc copies of the movie, selling for about $2.50 each, or less. Everyone who wanted to see Chow and co-star Michelle Yeoh show off their fighting prowess had already done so at home.

“The pirated VCDs were everywhere. They took advantage of our publicity,” said Zhang Xun of China Film, which declined to comment on the dispute over distribution rights.

The movie flopped at the Capital Theater, one of Beijing’s best-known cinemas, where 100 showings over 2 1/2 weeks drew a dismal average of 75 people per screening.

Overall, “Crouching Tiger” has brought in a disappointing 10 million yuan across China, or about $1.2 million--half of what its makers expected, if not less.

“It didn’t do as well as we’d hoped,” acknowledged Bill Kong, one of the film’s producers, who is based in Hong Kong.

Dong, Asian Union’s chairman, is convinced that the delay in releasing the film was the coup de grace.

“If we had screened the film at the same time as throughout the rest of Asia, in July, I’m sure ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ would have enjoyed the same kind of financial success and renown as it has had in America and Europe,” he said. A week ago Sunday, it garnered two Golden Globe awards, for best foreign-language film and best director, and it’s an odds-on favorite for Oscar accolades.

Yet the situation is not as clear-cut as Dong thinks. Once the movie hit the cinemas, most audience and critical reaction in China was dismissive.

Hollywood studio chiefs, take note: The same elements that had U.S. critics and moviegoers swooning fell flat with viewers in the world’s biggest potential movie market.

American reviewers praised the film for its historical authenticity, which required the input of experts on everything from furniture styles to wedding customs in the Qing Dynasty. Chinese watchers--used to TV period dramas full of anachronisms--were not impressed.

“Who cares?” said Zhong Gang, 27. “As long as it’s not totally absurd.”

Complaints also abound about the film’s slow pace, which American critics have called lush and poetic, and unrealistic characters whose grasp of Mandarin Chinese is shaky. Both Chow and Yeoh are used to Cantonese-speaking roles.

Added to that are action scenes that Chinese moviegoers label as fake and subpar compared with the kung fu mastery displayed in such classics as “Shaolin Temple.” Shanghai audiences hissed at a scene--a fight atop bamboo trees--that has had Western moviegoers gasping in delight. (“Gorgeous,” gushed the Sacramento Bee.)

“The action scenes weren’t as good as the old kung fu movies. . . . People flew around way too much. If you put me on wires, I could fly around too,” said Zhong, a mild-mannered bank employee. “There was no real martial-arts skill.”

Director Lee has said he tried to combine both Eastern and Western concepts in “Crouching Tiger,” to fuse a Bruce Lee film with the style of one of the director’s earlier art-house hits, “Sense and Sensibility.”

Critics in both North America and Europe have applauded the result. The Chinese, who seem to guard their movie genres as jealously as they guard their cuisine, are not interested.

“Since it’s a kung fu movie, you can’t just make it according to your own sensibility,” said theater manager Xu Zhongren. “You have to adjust for a mainland Chinese audience.”


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