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Master Chu, a retired Chinese Tai-Chi master, moves to Westchester, New York to live with his son Alex, his American daughter-in-law Martha, and their son Jeremy. However, Martha's second novel is suffering from severe writers' block brought on by Chu's presence in the house. Alex must struggle to keep his family together as he battles an inner conflict between cultural tradition and his modern American lifestlye. Written by
'Pushing hands' refers to an exercise in tai chi chuan, where lightly touching each other, two practitioners learn to yield to and redirect a shared flow of energy. Standardized by the Chinese government in the form of sports tournaments, 'pushing hands' is neither sport nor martial art, more reasonably it can be said to be the building block of tai chi chuan, in essence a Chinese form of boxing that uses Taoist principles of inter-connected balance of opposites, soft beats hard, emptiness in form.
Nearly impossible to make sense of it in film, as is meditation and other internal Eastern arts, because simply showing it, or worse in the light of mystical ability, obscures what it really is about. Ang Lee however tries in his first film, with mixed results.
Modeled to the story of an aging tai chi master who comes to America to stay with his son's family, there is what you'd expect from such a film; contrasts between two opposite ways of life, tradition versus modernity, love versus duty.
All that is pretty ordinary, and some obvious drama and questionable acting brings it further down. To be fair, for a low-budget student film, Lee shows considerable talent with a camera. All told, I'd rather celebrate his success story than Tarantino's. But let's see something more interesting from the Chinese perspective.
The overall point, is finding a still spot in imbalanced life that is constantly in motion, this is the old master's quest for a home and new life in a new country, somewhere to grow roots. This is the tao of balancing in the flow.
Life back in China isn't presented as ideal, we find that the old man has been persecuted all his life, and that his taichi and calligraphy is the still spot he cultivates, his center in a moving universe of suffering. See how a phone ringing startles him from meditation, that is life that goes on.
In line with tai chi principles, all this means 'hard' in several moments of real life conflict, versus 'soft' in inwards reflection. There is a love interest in Mrs. Chen (soft, as feminine yin to his yang) who's in a similar situation as the old man, and much gentle pushing and yielding to be close to her.
So how beautiful, if we could have the film as cinematic 'pushing hands' between lonely souls? And carry the flow from heavy drama to soft inner life, to what these people do to cool and express their ardor, she in her cooking, he in his calligraphy. Kar Wai makes it work, not quite so here.
Why is that? There's a scene of the old man watching videotapes of old Chinese kung fu movies, ridiculous from his perspective. The film is meant to offer next to other things a realistic depiction of his arts, fighting or otherwise, tied to realistic human connection as both soft.
But there are scenes like with the fat boy or in the restaurant, that in the end are as ridiculous as in those movies, suddenly jerking us to fiction, obscuring what is vital in his art; and mirroring that, there's a sense of inflated drama in emotional moments. But Lee is too talented for us to be able to easily discard the whole work.
The Western perspective, introduced later in the film by the son, is that his father's internal arts may be his way of shutting off the outside world, keeping from being touched perhaps related to the tragic loss of his wife. All through the film, we see that he likes Mrs. Chen but is reluctant to be close to her.
Now watch again the last scene where he teaches tai chi in the Chinese community center, now the 'hero of Chinatown'. Watch how we first see him doing the motions, and then with a soft flow of the camera materializes behind him as though out of thin air, an entire class of students. And who enters as if by chance? Mrs. Chen.
Now 'soft' is what we see of his heart, 'hard' what we imagine as taking place in his head.
See how lightly the real and unreal touch, how smooth the parallel flow.
So you can afford to miss the rest but not this last moment, it's expertly done and too delicious to ignore.
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