What happens when an old school Tai Chi expert from China comes to stay with his all-American daughter-in-law in New York? What sounds like the makings of a comedy caper is instead a well-drawn, compelling and poignant portrait of love and conflict across cultures and generations.
Master Chu from Beijing is balanced, centred, his dantian in harmony with the calmness of his breathing, the practised fluidity of his movement. We don’t know much about American daughter-in-law Martha’s dantian, but we suspect it’s not a priority. She is an early 90s vision of caffeine-dependant, bouffant-haired, shell-suited, frazzled modernity. I’d like to be Master Chu. But I fear I’m Martha.
Pushing Hands (推手 tui shou) is a martial arts practice. The aim is to overbalance your opponent, not by resisting their strength but by absorbing it. It’s a question of adaptation, accommodation. Neither Master Chu nor Martha are doing very well at the adaptation part. It’s been a month since he began living with his son, Alex, and Martha in their New York home, but it might as well be day one.
Chinese-American husband Alex is the arbiter between their two worlds but as he scoots off to his office job, it’s left to home-based novelist Martha to bear the brunt of Master Chu’s presence, eloquently depicted in the opening scenes. While Martha puts on pots of coffee, raids the fridge for sugar, jogs around the block, or taps with increasing desperation at her keyboard, Master Chu quietly but insistently hones his kung fu in the adjoining living room, his Tai Chi apparently able project an aura of annoyingness well beyond the limits of his enlightened frame.
All is not well for the martial arts expert, either. The slow, precise movements of his Tai Chi belie a sense of profound alienation and purposelessness. He does not understand the world he has come into and doesn’t much want to. As Chu moves between meditation, Peking opera on VHS, calligraphy, weiqi, a living repository of Chinese culture, we get the sense that this cultural medley is as much a bulwark against a strange land, a lonely assertion of identity, as something that gives him pleasure.
Director Ang Lee (李安) is an adept user of space to show relationships and power dynamics throughout the film. He’ll place a character close to the lens, sharply delineated, while another languishes behind, unfocused and diminished. Or, as here, shooting into the house from outside we witness Martha and Master Chu simultaneously through different windows, sharing space but utterly disconnected.
The East-meets-West story is told with a largeness of spirit; nobody is made a monster and each is allowed to make sense within their own spheres. This is particularly well done with Master Chu himself, beautifully played by Sihung Lung (郎雄), whose complex character is gently unspooled as the narrative goes along. For my money, though, the relationship between husband Alex and Martha was weaker and Martha herself – a woman of sufficient depth to be a celebrated novelist – could have been better-rounded.
In the latter part of the film, the well-honed Tai Chi abilities of Master Chu are allowed greater rein and, depending on your view of the efficacy of his art, moves into something that just nudges at the bounds of credibility. Some of the unadulterated pleasure in kung fu lore so evident in Ang Lee’s later Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is on show here, too, albeit in more restrained form.
Pushing Hands is a well-paced and sensitively-handled exploration of conflict. What initially appears to be a clash of East-and-West is quickly overshadowed by universal questions of generation gaps, family obligations, identity and ageing. It offers not easy answers, but a call for tolerance and understanding. Like the exercise that give the film its name: it’s about yielding, asserting, negotiating – but always maintaining contact.