What’s the classic martial-arts cliché?
Well, these formulas have been around for twenty years or more. There’s a fight and then the two characters step back and they look each other up and down, and maybe they’ll say a couple words and then they go back and fight again for another 30, 40, 50 seconds. And they’ll step back again and look each other up and down and say a few more words and then the fight’s over. We wanted to destroy that mold. For one thing, we have the actors continuing the dialogue throughout the fighting.
You also mix dance.
Yes, it was inspired by a Tang painting of a dancer dancing on drums and a kind of dance performed with long sleeves. In Chinese drama schools, that’s part of the basic curriculum for first-year students—using these sleeves as kind of an emotional extension of the actor in opera, say.
But Zhang Ziyi fights with them!
She spent over two months practicing to really get it right. Shooting that one scene took more than twenty days! By the end, Ziyi could barely raise her arm.
Why work so long for one scene?
Originally, I had planned to do a traditional dance scene—and we spent six months with the dance choreographer. I just felt something wasn’t quite right. So I called up Tony Ching, the action choreographer. I had to tell the dance choreographer and apologize.
The love scenes are also highly choreographed, and sometimes the romance bleeds into the action.
The love story is really pervasive. [In the first fight sequence] they’re actually flirting with each other. Especially in the scene where she uses the sleeve to pull the sword out of his sheath, there’s something very sensual. She kind of caresses him with her sleeves and with the sword and dances for a moment before it strikes.
Then there’s the more classical material, like the bamboo forest.
That setting is used over and over again in martial-arts cinema—just as it is in traditional Chinese paintings. If you are a Chinese painter, you have to paint bamboo.
Is it the same for a director?
Yes. It’s just one of those things. At one point, I thought maybe I shouldn’t set a scene in a bamboo forest, especially after Ang Lee did that great scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But then I went to Sichuan province, and after seeing the rays of light shining through the leaves, I realized this is the land of the warrior, the Xia. It’s not the realm of the normal people. I thought, Now I know why everyone makes fight scenes in the bamboo forests.