Review: Pushing Hands

On those evenings when Catherine and I want mindless entertainment and wander down to the video store, we've taken to looking in the Foreign section. We've gotten tired of the obviousness in American movies; it's gotten easy enough to pick out the formulaic story points and melodramatic cinematography that an evening with a movie at our house resembles MST3K as much as anything else, with catcalls of "gratuitous backlight" and "that beat was a second and a half late", just reduced to predicting "plot point" and "dark moment" on the slightly less contrived films.

We'd enjoyed one of Ang Lee's previous movies, Eat Drink Man Woman, and with my interest in Tai Chi, Pushing Hands finally made its way to the top of our viewing list.

Mr. Chu, a Tai Chi master, recently moved from Beijing to live with his son and daughter-in-law, and their son, in New York suburbs. She's a novelist, spending the day at home writing. He's at wit's end, in a new culture without the language, and spends his days watching Hong Kong videos, critiquing the Kung Fu moves.

Needless to say they don't get along, and his son is caught in the middle, with his wife and father both competing for attention.

It was nice to see a film which relied on acting rather than dialog and used realistic lighting and non-distracting camera work to tell the story.

Unfortunately, the characterization in the story didn't stand up to the rest of the film. For someone who's spent his life practicing Tai Chi, Mr. Chu is flauntingly arrogant. Perhaps we sympathize more with him for this reason, as a stranger to the culture that's behavior we'd expect, but it's hard to get past a man who's been through the Cultural Revolution and reached retirement still showing off like a teenager.

And this isn't nearly as sensuous a film as Eat Drink Man Woman. The Tai Chi is an activity to be interrupted for interactions, not integral to the story like food in the latter, and isn't being practiced by someone with a deep feeling for it, except for the opening sequence it's mainly shown as a set of one-off stunts, not the flowing motion I've become accustomed to, although some of this can be chalked up to the Chuan style he practices.

There are also, as in most foreign films, obvious cultural differences which make the characterizations I draw from the story different from those that I think the director intended. Obesity is apparently a very different condition in Chinese culture than American.

Despite all that it was enjoyable. I think that in the light of the standard American fare it takes a while to readjust to viewing a film that uses subtlety in its storytelling, and had my senses not been dulled I might rank it higher. Not a great film, but quite watchable.

Thursday, March 25th, 1999