As an adolescent, I heard about director Ang Lee’s films — Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997) — but it was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) that would be my entry point into his work. I’ve since jumped around his catalogue, but it’s through Film Movement’s brand-new 2K restoration of Pushing Hands (1991) that I partook of Lee’s feature-length directorial debut. As someone who leans toward martial arts films, I found myself surprised that I hadn’t heard of this film before, and watching it, I understood why: though it centers on a master martial artist, it’s not about being able to fight or wanting to fight, but about figuring out your place in the world when surrounded by a people and customs which are not your own. It’s a fight between old and new generations who disagree on what the world is versus what it was. In a way, there’s a lot still relevant today in Pushing Hands as it was over 30 years ago. Thanks to Film Movement, not only can home viewing audiences enjoy or revisit Lee’s first feature, they can do so with an hour-long round table discussion featuring three principal crew members of the production.
It’s been a month since Master Chu (Sihung Lung) retired and moved to the United States to live with his son, Alex (Bozhao Wang), and his family. It’s an absolute delight for grandson Jeremy (Haan Lee) to have this time with his grandfather and Alex feels as though he’s fulfilling a his responsibilities as a dutiful son, but daughter-in-law Martha (Deb Snyder) isn’t so pleased. While Jeremy goes to school and Alex goes to work, Martha remains at home working on her latest novel and doing so around Master Chu is difficult given his personal habits and his lack of understanding how things work in the home. Combined with their limited ability to converse, tensions ride high between the two, placing incredible pressure on Alex, riding in the middle. With anxiety also comes opportunity and a chance for growth that may help Master Chu rediscover his place in the world.
Though released in 1991 in Taiwan, it didn’t become available in the United States for some time after. It’s because of this that Pushing Hands is considered the final film in Lee’s “Father Knows Best” trilogy, which includes his follow-up films The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman. These films explore family dynamics, specifically the turmoil which occurs when an older and younger generations clash. Even though the film was made so long again, Pushing Hands remains relevant today. Its title, referring to an aspect of tai chi training that involves partners moving in conjunction to maintain balance, is a hint at the disparity the audience finds the characters entrenched in. Everyone is imbalanced: Master Chu is in an unfamiliar place, Martha is unable to work due to an unfamiliar individual in her home, and Alex desperately attempts to ride the line between the two. As shown in the film, as a master, Chu is able to exert great force on those whose balance he can overthrow and he can immobilize himself like a tree rooted to the ground. He can do this on his own, but requires someone who can match him in order to maintain equilibrium. This, of course, serves as the metaphor from which the conflict is born and the narrative explores. For instance, though he is delighted to be with his family, he’s unable to bend or sway with their energy as expectant as he is to remain as he was before coming to America. Rather than finding ways to respect his new home, he overtakes spaces physically and emotionally. He expects to be treated as is custom versus as is tradition in America. Frankly, the perspective of American life is rather crummy compared what Chu presents of China: elders are pushed away, displaced, rather than cared for within the same family unit; there’s a focus on capitalist-centric productivity; and little in the way of preserving culture. We see this last bit, especially, with Jeremy who goes to a Chinese school on Saturdays to learn about his father’s side of the family. Today, with the country so full of immigrants, there continues to be a battle for balance between the world that is and the community and culture of a people. It’s not just seeing representation in media that creates validation, it’s representation displayed honestly and with reason, eschewing tokenism for truth and value. It’s people seeking out their heritage, returning to customs or traditions, that aren’t exchanged in public spaces. It’s remembering that where we are now is because of where and who we come from. When we’re unsure of our place in the world, there’s imbalance, there’s strife, there’s struggle. Surely, there should be a way for individuals to relish their own specific traditions without worry of whether or not they’ll be persecuted for it: by government, by a country’s people, by one’s own family.
Perhaps that’s why the recent shift of American politics toward theocracy is so particularly frightening: it feels like an imbalance on a large scale for a country which pushes the principle of malleability. Certainly, American history shows a great deal of failings on the part of its promises and the manner in which history is taught, but the guiding document is intended to be adjusted, adapted, molded to grow; not to be stifled by one manner of thinking. One of the subtextual elements of Chu’s struggle with his son is that his wife, Alex’s mother, fell victim to supporters of the Cultural Revolution because the attackers knew that they couldn’t hurt Master Chu and Chu was protecting his young son. Chu has survived persecution, dreamed of reconnection with his son, and none of it goes as planned because the world Chu sent his son into contains rules wildly different than what he knows, rules which, when he tries to engage on his own, often come back to bite him. Fascinatingly, when Chu finds himself insulted over and again by a restaurant owner who hired him, though he starts with reason, his stubbornness leads to an exhibition of his strength, one which highlights Chu’s boiling frustration and also how America saw immigrants of the time, which is not so dissimilar to now. There is disdain for immigrants, even though this is a country built upon their (our) backs.
Now let’s move on to the restoration and bonus materials, as these are the prime areas of interest for home viewers.
There’s no information included in either the press release or included booklet which provides technical details regarding the restoration process, so I can’t offer any information on that. What I can tell you is that the on-disc image is clear with minimal visible grain. You can tell it’s a film from the early ‘90s, yet it lacks the aura of non-restored films. It’s not that the on-screen images are vibrant (that wouldn’t fit with the feeling of the film), but they aren’t rusted, either. There’s visible life within the frame, the colors appearing more natural and details fine-tuned. The images accompanying this restoration review are included with the press kit, yet don’t provide a true sense of how the restoration appears when played. Granted, I viewed the disc on my 4K UHD television using an Xbox One, so it’s possible that the player up-converted the disc, but even an improvement like that wouldn’t be so large as to be a distinct change from the included images to what I saw displayed. Additionally, though the audio track is monaural, it still felt balanced when played through my 5.1 surround setup. No specific sound overtook another, dialogue came through clearly, as did the score, as well as any background or ambient noise.
The bonus features included within the release are two-fold: a booklet with release information and an essay from Asian Film & Media Associate Professor Zhen Zhang, as well as a single on-disc round table discussion led by film critic Simon Abrams. Zhang’s essay explores both Lee’s personal connection to his cinematic works as they blend two worlds as he does, while also offering insight into the film and its themes. This is an extraordinary opportunity to read from an expert in media studies and perhaps obtain a starting point, should your experience with Lee be minimal. Around her essay are several stills from the film, providing a sense of context to her words.
Ordinarily, when it comes to restoration or remaster home releases, I tend to get super excited when there’s a plethora of materials included. For Pushing Hands, it’s limited to a single on-disc interview, but it’s an extensive one that’ll delight cinephiles and film historians. Hosted by Abrams, home viewers are treated to a discussion between him, co-writer/co-producer James Schamus, co-producer Ted Hope, and editor Tim Squyres. For those unaware, each of the participants Abrams speaks with are frequent collaborators with Lee (Schamus co-wrote Eat Drink Man Woman and co-produced Sense and Sensibility, for instance). Through their chat, you’ll learn about Lee’s initial concerns with working with Schamus and Hope after winning a script competition held by the Government Information Office of Taiwan, how little influence the Taiwanese representatives had on the making of the film, and other amusing anecdotes about their experience. I found it particularly fascinating to learn that the film was made for a Taiwanese audience first, something I didn’t notice or realize upon watching the film given its more American perspective. Taken in that light, those such as myself must reframe their reaction as the context of the narrative and dialogue takes on an entirely different perspective.
This is exactly why bonus features are so important to any home release, whether it’s a restoration, remaster, or initial release. There’s so much context that can be lost or missing if all an audience does is engage with the art without additional information. By offering this hour-long discussion, as well as the accompanying essay within the booklet, Film Movement provides an opportunity for home viewers to reconfigure their ideas about Pushing Hands entirely.
Pushing Hands Special Features:
- Round Table discussion with filmmakers James Schamus, Ted Hope and Tim Squyres, moderated by film critic Simon Abrams (1:02:33)
- 16-page booklet with new essay by NYU Cinema Studies professor Zhen Zhang
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital May 10th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Film Movement Pushing Hands webpage.
To purchase at copy, Film Movement recommends heading to Amazon.