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Pushing Hands 1991


Distributed by Film Movement
Produced by Central Motion Pictures; Ang Lee Productions (Emily Yi-ming, Liu Feng Chyt Jiang)
Directed by Ang Lee
Streaming, 105 mins

College - General Adult
Aging; China; Emigration; Tai Chi Chuan; Taiwan

Date Entered: 06/17/2022

Reviewed by Michael Pasqualoni, Librarian for Public Communications, Syracuse University Libraries

Released in Taiwan in 1991, Pushing Hands is the first feature film from multiple Academy Award winning director, Ang Lee. In spring of 2022, a restored edition of this well received drama and comedy has now gotten its first release on Blu-ray disc. The late Taiwanese film and television star, Sihung Lung, plays Mr. Chu, recently arrived in the United States where he lives a sometimes-uneasy daily life with his computer science PhD son, Alex, and Alex’s uptight aspiring novelist wife, the aptly named American spouse, Martha, and their young son Jeremy. Lung’s Mr. Chu is the stand-out figure in the film, holding it together with its most powerfully rendered performance. All members of the multigenerational household, sharing a small suburban home, struggle with success and failure and trying not to get on each other’s nerves.

There is the stressful duality inherent in how the parents should respond to young Jeremy honored to be in a gifted reading class but having the lowest scores. And subtle suggestions in the subtext on the limits of intellectualism or fame. We learn about anger bottled up by Alex and of the torture Chu and family faced in China many decades before, prior to fleeing to Taiwan during Mao’s Communist revolution. It is in the second half of the film we also learn Mr. Chu lost his wife in those years and that those rough times prompted his devotion to the study of Kung Fu and Tai Chi Chuan. “I feel so stifled,” says Chu to his son – following his getting lost on an evening walk. As he puts it, “compared to loneliness, persecution is easy.”

Mr. Chu’s friendship with similarly aged cooking teacher, Mrs. Chen, becomes central to Pushing Hands. Catching sight of her making dumplings at a local Chinese activity center, affinity more so than passion brings them together, as both fight against feeling useless or manipulated by their own children. The theme of elders running away from home escalates as the film approaches its conclusion. A tragically comic sequence is effective when Chu, having fled Alex and Martha, works as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant for a less than tolerant owner smug about American individualism, empowering both a defiantly proud Chu and the restaurant staff who come to his side. The staff quits en masse. Chu’s martial arts prowess borders on that of superhero status - complete with local news coverage of his triumph, interesting in that Ang Lee would go on to direct an actual superhero movie some years later, Hulk, and the much honored wuxia martial arts adventure film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a nimble device Chu uses to stand up for himself and to influence some outcomes, within a life where control has certainly not been a norm.

Some of the writing in Pushing Hands can be a bit on the nose at times, a little less than natural, particularly the dialogue spoken by the American characters, Martha, and her cartoonish real estate agent friend, Linda, written as a crass businesswoman who apparently had Maoist leanings in her youth. Strong performances by others more than compensate, and especially when the film gets past some early comedic absurdity. That comedy advances the plot but is weaker than some of the other serious themes regarding the smothering as well as supportive aspects of nuclear families. This is a compelling feature likely to be of interest to those who study the career of director Lee, or the stories of Asian immigrant communities in the United States. Anyone navigating care for elders, or the pressures of feeling like a fish out of water as a domestic or international migrant will also find much to relate to within this film. Not flinching at the stark political upheaval that is a backdrop to the lives of the characters, ultimately, we have in Pushing Hands, in addition to a sometimes-meditative observation of Tai Chi Chuan, a hopeful view of community and family structures, and a deft treatment of the powerful drive for independent living that we crave at most any age.

Asian Pacific Film Festival, Best Film; Golden Horse Film Festival, Nominated Best Feature Film and Nominated Best Director, Winner, Special Jury Award, Winner Best Lead Actor and Best Supporting Actress; Berlin International Film Festival, Official Selection

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