Pushing Hands: Elbow Room, by David Bax
Even though the more recent of the two films was released more than twenty years after the older one, the very early scenes in Ang Lee’s 1991 Pushing Hands (playing cinemas now in a new restoration) immediately made me think of the director’s Life of Pi from 2012. Sihung Lung’s character, Mr. Chu, may have about fifteen years on Irrfan Khan’s Pi but, when we’re introduced to him practicing tai chai in the living room of a Western home, there would appear to be similarities in the ways and places that Lee’s two characters have chosen for their repose.
That comparison is shattered, though, as soon as we realize that Mr. Chu is not enjoying his golden years and the respect his wisdom has earned him. On the contrary, he is not-so-quietly miserable, locked in an antagonistic relationship with his son’s white, American wife, Martha, (Deb Snyder), with whom he shares a suburban New York home all day while Alex (Bozhao Wang), his only child, is off at work. Their friction is not so much cultural as linguistic; Mr. Chu is no more interested in learning English than Martha is in learning Mandarin. In reality, they have more in common than they’d like to admit. What they’re actually unhappy about are the roles into which Alex is trying to force them (housewife and gentle elder, respectively). But each has chosen the other as the whipping boy for their angst.
Martha is a writer and Mr. Chu’s presence in her home is a distraction from that pursuit, just as she is a distraction from his meditative martial art. The film’s title comes directly from the lexicon of the latter interest but Lee takes it more or less literally, introduces us to both characters via shots of their hands, his in the midst of his exercises, hers haltingly attempting to hammer out sentences on a typewriter. Later, when we get a close-up on the fingers of a woman delicately pinching dumplings, it’s a clue that she is going to play an important role.
Mr. Chu’s sadness provides plenty of fodder for the quiet ache that would go on to define so much of Lee’s work. But Pushing Hands is also, at times, a warm, humanistic and surprisingly broad comedy. The old master’s attempt to get the attention of the dumpling-maker (Lai Wang) by demonstrating his tai chi prowess, for example, leads to a major pratfall.
All this physicality requires attentive work from cinematographer Jong Lin (Bend It Like Beckham), as well as from Lee’s blocking. One shot, in which a group of woman prepare food in the same room where Mr. Chu is leading a group of men in tai chi lessons, is funny but also illustrates the film’s concern regarding the way that people struggle to find enough room for themselves.
For Mr. Chu, the least he needs is a place where he’s not in anyone’s way. Pushing Hands, for all its unassuming sweetness, reserves some righteous rage on behalf of aging people and the perception that they are of dwindling use in a world of which they remain very much a part.