Can new Crouching Tiger leap into fame?
IN THE history of Chinese cinema, no movie other than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has captured so much attention from North America, a market that Chinese film-makers often dream about capturing.
Being the first Chinese-language movie to win at the Oscars, it set the tone for future martial arts movies and made Lee Ang's directorial masterpiece a model both in terms of art and commerce.
This makes it easy to understand why Yuen Woo Ping, the director of the sequel titled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny, is often asked if he worries about being compared with Lee.
"No, I've never felt stressed. When you think too much, you are unable to make a good film," said the 69-year-old Hong Kong-based film-maker, who is also the martial arts choreographer of the Matrix and Kill Bill films.
The new movie, adapted from the fifth and final book of wuxia novelist Wang Dulu's Crane Iron series (Lee adapted the fourth book), will hit Chinese theatres in 3D on Feb 19.
Alongside the Mandarin version, an English one will be simultaneously released on streaming site Netflix worldwide and in some cinemas in North America on Feb 26.
The sequel rewrites a key plot of the original story in the books (that said, the first movie also made several changes). Protagonist swordsman Yu Xiulian's fiance, who was supposed to have died protecting Yu's true love, Li Mubai, is revived, and the new plot revolves around fidelity, revenge and conspiracy.
While a franchise's market potential typically hinges on the same stars appearing in new films, the sequel has only Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh reprising her role as Yu.
However, gongfu superstar Donnie Yen, playing her character's fiance, adds weight to the cast.
But die-hard fans could be disappointed to see that Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen from the first movie are absent in the new film.
But for Yuen, the big challenge revolves more around making the West understand Asian sensitivities and philosophy of jianghu, or the Chinese martial arts world.
Despite Lee's 2000 movie gaining widespread popularity in the West, a series of ambitious martial arts tentpoles, such as Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002) and Chen Kaige's The Promise (2005), failed to match Lee's success.
Some critics say one of the main reasons for the poor response to those films is that Western audiences could not understand the intricacies of the Chinese martial arts world.
So, the domestic industry now has a lot of hope pinned on Yuen's movie.
But given the slump seen in wuxia movies in recent years, can the new Crouching Tiger film revive the flagging fortunes of a genre that helped introduce Chinese cinema to the world?
The start was not so promising.
When American scriptwriter John Fusco finished his first version, Yuen was not satisfied with the storyline featuring a good-versus-evil stereotype.
Interestingly, Fusco is known in Hollywood for his knowledge of Chinese history and culture.
He wrote two seasons of the hit TV series Marco Polo, based on the legendary Italian's journeys from Europe to China between 1271 and 1295.
But Yuen saw Fusco's first version as "a Western cowboy action thriller" set against the backdrop of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Yuen, who has been involved with the Chinese martial arts genre for around 40 years, says: "China's fictional wuxia world is like a gigantic vat of dye, which turns good into evil and vice versa, swaying heroes between right and wrong."
The script was revised 10 times over six years but Yuen did not give his nod until a Chinese screenwriter updated it.
Many Lee fans say they still remember the fighting scenes from the first movie.
A fight on an icy lake highlighted in the stills of the new movie perhaps offers a picture of things to come.
Yuen, also the action director for the first movie, said nearly 85 per cent of the fighting scenes in the new film are "genuine".
While many recent martial arts films have mainly used computer-generated imagery, Yeoh tells China Daily that Yuen will take viewers into the real world of the swordsman.
"They (viewers) will feel they are part of the movie and also feel the fears of the characters," she said.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK