Classic Film Review: Ang Lee’s debut, the charming “Pushing Hands” (1991) is restored

The great Taiwanese-American Ang Lee made a most auspicious if little-seen feature directing debut with “Pushing Hands,” a sentimental dramedy about an old tai chi master whose move to New York goes anything but smoothly.

After a decade of making short films and picking up experience on other’s sets (Spike Lee’s “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”), he broke out at age 37, launching a career that has included Oscar winners (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Sense and Sensibility”), action pics (“Gemini Man”) and even a comic book movie (“Hulk”).

But his first three films — “Pushing Hands (Tui Shou”), “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman,” — his so-called “Father Knows Best” Trilogy, not only announced his arrival but gave mainstream American culture a peek at Chinese-American culture and a renewed taste for Chinese cuisine. Lee painted vivid portraits of Chinese Confucianism clashing with Americanism, often under the same fractious roof.

Chu (Sihung Lung) has only been in the States a short while, but he’s managed to start teaching tai chi classes at a local suburban New York Chinese community center, and he’s thoroughly gotten under the skin of his daughter-in-law. Martha (Deb Snyder) just published a book and is pounding away at a new one, only to have the constant distraction of “The Master” practicing his martial arts, or bored and watching crummy martials arts movies or Chinese operas his son (Bozhao Wang) rents for him.

No, headphones don’t stop him from singing along.

Perhaps what the long-widowed Beijing expat needs is a lady friend. The spunky and quick-witted widow Mrs. Chen (Lai Wang), who teaches cooking classes at that same community center, might fill that bill.

Whatever is going on there, things at home are reaching a boiling point. His college educated-son and daughter-in-law are raising their little boy to be bilingual and appreciate both cultures. But they’re soft.

“In America, you’re so nice to kids,” he grumbles in Mandarin (subtitled). Because no way is he putting the effort into English at age 70. He grouses about “this American woman” his son is married to “eating only vegetables,” passes on bits of yin and yang wisdom to deaf ears, whips out a little accupressure and when he gets the chance, shows off his mad martial arts skills to Mrs. Chen in class.

Maybe their adult children should set them up?

Lee’s ever-so-patient storytelling style is introduced to film lovers with “Pushing Hands,” lulling us into the teeth-grinding routine that’s wearing down this family before delivering that cute martial arts “showing off” turn, developing the characters and the conflicts further before dropping a farcical action finale that is played so seriously you don’t feel it’s out of step with anything that’s come before.

Star Sihung Lung transcends stereotypes to become the quintessential “ancient Chinese secret,” a man ably representating an old culture transplanted in a new one. He was in all the films of the “Father Knows Best” trilogy, and in Lee’s romantic martial arts blockbuster “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Newly-restored and re-released in some theaters and on Film Movement+, this 1991 gem will have you remembering how big a deal Lee became as a filmmaker, and hankering for take-out (Lee has a lot of eating scenes in his early films — a LOT).

As Lee has spent his recent years making indifferent mainstream films such as “Gemini Man,” “Taking Woodstock” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” one can’t help but wish he takes this occasion to look back on his earliest days and recalls some other story about the Chinese diaspora that only he could tell. His two Oscars mean that a lot more people would notice this time around.

Rating: unrated, some violence

Cast: Sihung Lung, Deb Snyder, Lai Wang, Bozhao Wang and Fanny De Luz

Credits: Directed by Ang Lee, scripted by Ang Lee and James Schamus. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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