Pushing Hands (1991)

Review #1,606

Director:  Lee Ang
Cast:  Lung Sihung, Wang Lai, Wang Bozhao, Deb Snyder, Haan Lee
Plot:  Master Chu, a retired Chinese Tai-Chi master, moves to America to live with Alex, his son, Martha his American daughter-in-law, and their child.  However, Martha, a novelist, is suffering from severe writer's block brought on by Chu's presence in the house.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won 2 Golden Horses - Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actress.  Nom. for 7 Golden Horses - Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Recording
Runtime:  105 mins
Rating:  PG (passed clean)
Source:  Central Motion Pictures

One of the eminent filmmakers of our time, Lee Ang may not have hit his first feature right out of the park, but it still represents an auspicious beginning to what has been an incredibly successful career.  Pushing Hands, as it is called, centers on Mr. Chu, an old tai-chi master played with quiet intensity by Lung Sihung, as he struggles to adapt to America after moving in with his son, American daughter-in-law and their young child.  Lung, whose presence in Lee’s two subsequent films—The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)—would lead him to become the face of this trio of movies, now collectively known as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy, won Best Leading Actor at the Golden Horse Awards.  

In Pushing Hands, Mr. Chu faces every problem imaginable (at least from his perspective), from being unable to communicate with her English-speaking daughter-in-law to trying to instil his Western-influenced grandson with a sense of ‘Chineseness’.  Caught in between is his very own son, who’s trying to get everyone to live together harmoniously.  Lee has envisioned Pushing Hands first and foremost as a family drama of cultural differences, and to that end, it is a resonating work that also has mainstream appeal.  Lee has never been an ‘art-house’ type director, and one could argue that his entire body of work could be lapped up by any average Joe or Jane and it would still be (rather) accessible to him or her.  

But what sets him apart is his craft and natural affinity to storytelling, and in Pushing Hands, all of these are evident from the get-go.  Tai-chi as a form of martial arts (albeit a subtler, less aggressive form that provides internal health benefits rather than an excuse to showcase one’s prowess) is employed not just as a plot point for the narrative arc of Mr. Chu (the opening shots are that of the character practising his morning routine), who teaches local Chinese immigrants during the weekends, but as a formidable defensive technique in the film’s heated climax.

Lee’s grasp of themes of filial piety, as well as the propensity to want to connect with another person no matter one’s age, is firm and universal.  There are also tender moments of introspect, culminating in an emotional scene between father and son.  Pushing Hands may be Lee’s first break as a filmmaker, but it promises great things to come from Taiwan’s most international filmmaker. 

Verdict:  Lee Ang’s first feature has well-defined characters and its themes of cultural differences and family resonate with clarity. 




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