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1992’s “Pushing Hands” is the debut film of director Ang Lee, who co-wrote the script with his familiar partner-in-crime, James Schamus. As with all of Lee’s movies, regardless of genre trappings, the film concerns itself with family and duty, and how the two co-exists, for better or worst. The film stars Sihung Lung, a Lee regular who has been in some of the director’s most critically acclaimed films, including “The Wedding Banquet”, “Eat Drink Man Woman”, and the fantasy martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The rest of the cast, with the exception of the veteran Lai Wang, would never have made it into the movie had this not been Ang Lee’s first foray into filmmaking. And that, alas, is the movie’s weakest point.
As the “Pushing Hands” opens, it’s already been a few months since retired Tai Chi Master Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) moved to America to live with his son Alex (Bo Z. Wang). Alex is married to the neurotic Martha (Deb Snyder), a writer currently suffering through terrible writer’s block. As it so happens, Martha’s writer’s block started about the same time Mr. Chu moved in, and no one is more aware of this fact than she. For its first 20 minutes, the film explores the unspoken conflict between Martha and Mr. Chu as they fumble about the house, sharing space in the kitchen and living room, and yet refusing to co-exist. The relationship between the two isn’t cold, it’s non-existent, and neither cares enough to really try to change it.
The film spends much of its time dealing with Mr. Chu’s attempts to come to terms with his new surroundings, which includes teaching Tai Chi at the local Chinese school where Alex’s son also goes to learn Chinese. At the school, Mr. Chu runs into Mrs. Chen (Lai Wang), a widower from Taiwan who teaches a cooking class. The two immediately catches each other’s eye, but realizing there’s an attraction and making it happen are two different animals. Nevertheless, a hesitant relationship develops, but is threatened by Mr. Chu’s lack of aggression and Mrs. Chen’s belief that she’s just passing time until her inevitable demise. One can’t help but notice, especially in stark contrast to Mrs. Chen, that Mr. Chu is still very much alive and kicking, which makes the suffocation of his new environment even more untenable.
Without a doubt, the one thing that makes “Pushing Hands” work, even when the movie fumbles to find itself, is Sihung Lung, giving a heartbreaking and winning performance, helped in no small part by a wonderfully written character. Mr. Chu is infused with wisdom about the metaphysical world, but is clueless when it comes to romance or picking up on the small inflections of those around him. When Mr. Chu wants to catch Mrs. Chen’s attention, he throws one of his students (during a kung fu demonstration) into her cooking table, thus giving him the excuse to later visit her house with a “I’m sorry” gift. Later, at a picnic, Mr. Chu realizes that Alex has been manipulating him, and he never noticed until Mrs. Chen points it out. To paraphrase Mrs. Chen, for a man with such powerful kung fu, it’s incredible how dense Mr. Chu is about reading people.
There are things about “Pushing Hands” that doesn’t quite work, and most of it, I believe, are owed to the fact that this is Lee’s first movie, and he probably didn’t have as much control or creative leeway as he would have in future projects. With the exception of Sihung Lung and Lai Wang, the cast of “Pushing Hands” is hit and miss. Bo Z. Wang does okay as the son, but his performance is oftentimes uneven and affecting. The same for Deb Snyder, who is unnaturally stiff, and lacks polish as an actor. No surprise that the two wouldn’t go on to become well-known names, as they seem lost and out of their element for much of the movie.
Of course it probably doesn’t help Snyder’s performance any that Schamus and Lee’s script really doesn’t present a sympathetic portrait of Martha. If anything, one is hardpressed to believe that someone of Martha’s disposition and personality could ever marry, much less fall in love, with a man like Alex, who is prone to bouts of drunken nights and violent outbursts. Not surprisingly, it’s when the movie focuses on its Chinese characters that things click. Mr. Chu’s burgeoning relationship with Mrs. Chen is sweet and effective, as well as Mr. Chu’s interactions with his grandson. The Third Act comes as a surprise, as it leaves the relatively safe home environment for the dangers of the city’s Chinatown district.
Although much of “Pushing Hands” is surprisingly lighthearted and sometimes quite funny in the early going ons (Martha’s real estate friend, we learn, was a Maoist who converted to Capitalist), it does get a bit deep and melodramatic toward the end (Mr. Chu ends up in jail!). The sequence where Mr. Chu finds himself working as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant is both heartbreaking and satisfying. In it, Mr. Chu refuses to leave the restaurant after he’s been fired for being a slow worker, and what follows is one man’s titanic struggle to reclaim his self-respect against the world. It’s probably the movie’s best sequence, followed by a tearjerker inside a city jail between father and son.
“Pushing Hands” doesn’t have the polish one is used to in an Ang Lee film, but it is nevertheless a very good movie, with outstanding performances from Sihung Lung and Lai Wang. The script needs work, but to its credit there is no force-fed Hollywood happy ending, and in fact Mr. Chu and Martha never have a meeting of minds, an outcome that seems perfectly fine for both of them. Ang Lee would go on to direct better actors in better movies, but he has nothing to be ashamed of here. “Pushing Hands” marks a fantastic debut for a great director.
Ang Lee (director) / Ang Lee, James Schamus (screenplay)
CAST: Emily Yi-Ming Liu …. Yi Ci
James Lou …. Mr. Chao
Sihung Lung …. Mr. Chu
Deb Snyder …. Martha Chu
Hung Chang Wang …. Boss Huang
Bo Z. Wang …. Alex Chu
Lai Wang …. Mrs. Chen