Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, dir. Ang Lee)
The women of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fly high, fast, and far. The film is ostensibly about freedom, particularly feminine freedom, so it is worth noting that the three female protagonists live entirely outside the feminine mainstream of Chinese society—of that or any time. Women’s freedom is shown to exist only in binary opposition to the ties of family and is revealed most often as irresponsible and randomly hurtful or even deadly to others. It is equated either to isolation and self-sacrifice, at best, or to adolescent tantrum and mad vengeance, at worst. But when the price of freedom—whether of speech, action, or desire—is beset by loneliness, interminable deception, and even murder most evil, it is at least equally as compelled (obliged) a state of being as is that of submission and obedience, suggesting not a viable alternative but, rather, a poverty of choice. This is not a vision of feminist freedom.
The film begins when Yu Shulien (Michelle Yeoh), an extraordinarily gifted swordswoman and experienced security courier, must deliver a sword named “Green Destiny”9 to Sir Te (Lung Sihung) on behalf of Li Mubai (Chow Yun-fat), the greatest swordsman of his generation. Mubai—whose name suggests an unsettled heart (mu) yearning for clarity (bai)—is giving his valuable sword away because he has chosen to withdraw from jianghu (the world of martial arts) and to forsake his duty to avenge his wushu (martial arts) master, who was murdered by Jade Fox (Zheng Peipei). The sword is delivered safely—prompting Sir Te to compliment Shulien for carrying on her father’s business so well—but it is stolen that first night. There is brief combat but the masked thief escapes easily, using the patrolman’s head to vault into the air and to fly with incredible speed across the rooftops. Much inferior in the martial arts, the guard is incapable of chasing into the air, but Shulien hears the commotion and at once takes up pursuit, flying after the thief, leaping from rooftop to rooftop with dazzling speed and accuracy.10
At last Shulien is able to ground the thief by ingenious footwork that blocks the latter’s levitations, but suddenly another rooftop assailant shoots a dart at Shulien and, in this split-second of reprieve, the thief gets away. Shulien deduces the identity of the thief, and the next morning she goes to visit Jiaolong (Zhang Ziyi), Governor Yu’s daughter (hereafter referred to as “Jen” to follow the film’s English subtitles), to confirm the suspicion. At Sir Te’s the day before, Jen had ever so demurely marvelled at the “heaviness” and the “beautiful scabbard” of the Green Destiny Sword, as though she were a weakling with no knowledge of the martial arts and no appreciation of the sword as a superior weapon. The truth is that she has been training in the Wudang style of wushu—as a child she was taught by the infamous Jade Fox disguised as an ordinary governess, but, more substantially and effectively, she secretly studied the manuals that Fox had stolen from the Wudang master who took her into his bed but not into his school. Jen hid her superior abilities from the governess, just as she was outwardly calm about her betrothal (made to fortify her father’s political power) to the son of a wealthy family. However, excited to meet a swordswoman by trade, Jen—almost forgetting her masquerade as ingenue—confides in Shulien that she would rather roam the jianghu and participate in its affairs and thereby be free. Shulien offers a different perspective by sharing stories of flea-infested beds and long journeys without baths, and by disclosing her history of loss—a murdered fiance and a subsequent repressed love for another in order to observe, in her words, “a woman’s duty.”
In contrast to Shulien’s restraint, Jen—it is revealed to us in a lengthy flashback—once transgressed the confines of family and tradition by loving and living with a bandit, Luo Xiaohu (Cheng Chen), otherwise feared as “Dark Cloud” (hereafter referred to as “Lo” to follow the film’s English subtitles). The exquisite cinematography in the wild northern desert, together with YoYo Ma’s performance of Tan Dun’s solo cello composition, invite a romantic spectator(ship) so that when Jen returns to her parents and lives the seemingly sheltered life of a governor’s daughter, we appreciate that, in her heart, fiery excesses grow. Lo—whose name (“Xiaohu”) means “little tiger”—is the titular “crouching tiger” that awaits their reunion.
Jen’s name—“Yu Jiaolong” in Chinese—means “delicate/pampered jade dragon.”11 Hard and smooth and believed to have protective qualities, jade was a royal gem in China and it continues to be used as a symbol of love and beauty. Dragons are the supreme symbol of strength, intelligence, and authority; they are fierce and they expect to be pleased—content dragons bring rain for the crops but disgruntled dragons cause immense floods. Dragons are shapeshifters: they can change to any colour or size; they appear and disappear in a flash; they live in the mountain caves and in the ocean depths, ruling the skies in the spring and the seas in the fall; they preside over the seasons as over life itself. Jen (or Yu Jialong) is the titular “hidden dragon” for whom the tiger waits.
On the surface Jen is smooth as jade, having refined her social graces not only as an accomplished calligrapher (one of the seven arts of a classical Chinese education) but also as a consummate liar, hiding her thief’s heart from her two mentors (she betrayed her governess for half of her young life and deceived her new friend Shulien with perfect equanimity). She wants first what Fox has (fighting skills and a fighting heart), then what Mubai has (the Green Destiny Sword and superior wushu) and what Shulien has (freedom of self-determination), but instead of mutuality and camaraderie, her mimetic desire degenerates into rivalry and destruction, stubbornly reiterated in the narrative and underscored by an omniscient camera’s frequent close-ups of her belligerent face.
Living up to the dragon of her name, Jen is an exceptional fighter whose celestial body presides in the skies as comfortably as on the ground, but this jiaolong (pampered dragon) is both naive and self-indulgent. Discontent with her life, she shapeshifts—now a coquette, now a ninja, now a fighting scholar named Long (dragon) who travels the jianghu for adventure—and she lashes out with half-formed ideas, with the result that chaos ensues wherever she treads (or, more accurately, flies). Her self-centred desires supported by superior martial skills cause havoc and mayhem and broken bones, whether they be to steal a sword or to pick a fight in a relatively peaceful inn. The damage she does—to friends and enemies without distinction—is reckless and egotistical, like the deluge released by an irate dragon.
While the dragon is headstrong and irascible, the fox is sneaky and long – suffering. Chinese mythology has many fox-spirits who appear in human form but they are usually represented as female and they seduce men to steal their strength, just as Jade Fox apparently did when she slept with Li Mubai’s master and then killed him and stole the Wudang wushu manual.12 While her anguish over the master’s sexism—“he thought me good enough to sleep with but not good enough to teach”—has feminist potential, unfortunately it is largely passed over unsympathetically by the film, which chooses, instead, to dramatize her deception, deviance, and heartlessness: to her pupil Jen, as previously to her teacher the Wudang master, Fox dispenses poison after love. While she does suffer injustice, she is portrayed as consistently making choices that aggravate rather than amend or heal an inveterately unjust society. Thus her life is essentially over when she chooses to avenge herself on the man who casts her aside on serious matters: she is caught, animal-like, in a trap of her own devising. She is the least “aerial” of the three women warriors, or, more accurately, the film is considerably less interested in displaying her aerialism than that of the other two heroines. Perhaps it is not just Fox’s villainy but the origins of it—sleeping with the Wudang master but wanting even more— that prompt the camera’s reluctance to spectacularize her body in flight.
While typically the women of the wuxia pian choose to defuse or instruct (as Shulien does in her battles with Jen) rather than to kill, there are Medeas, too, who will not limit their violence. Fox’s method of attack is a surprise ambush of needles and darts laced with poison—hardly a heroic choice of weapon or assault—but even worse is her willingness to harm not only her enemies but also, just as readily, those she loves (she pretends to burn healing herbs for Jen when she is really burning poison). Certainly, her constant threat from off-screen and her typical violent entries from the frame’s edges filmi – cally locate her as the error that history has produced but has not yet eradicated.
Virtue in the wuxia pian is recognized in those who contain their anger— not so as to turn it inward (like Madame Bovary, who poisoned herself, or Anna Karenina, who jumped in front of a train) but to decline its claims on the flesh and to redress it through self-training (to become consummate in both art and understanding [in this case, the art of kungfu]) or through pedagogy (Shulien tries to teach Jen by discourse and by example). This transformation of anger from reaction to action both avoids the stunted understanding and cyclical, poisoned life of Fox, and creates at least the potential for community. It is in this sense that Shulien remains finally human; but, unable or unwilling to resist the seductions of melodrama, the film ensures that she becomes even more so as her life is fully rounded by tragedy. Shulien’s gentleness and strength of character ironically create the preconditions of the film’s tragic elements: out of respect and loyalty to her lost betrothed, she abstains from giving her love in its fullness to Li Mubai; thus, when he dies, their love is unconsummated and she faces a long life of loneliness and regret. Still, there is no hardness, only grace, in her last words to Jen, who brought her and Mubai to this sad pass. She does not turn on the girl—whom she likes— but speaks from a place of calm and serenity.
Shulien, as I’ve shown, is always full of grace. In fact, her name means “graceful lotus” and, like the lotus, with its roots deep in the soil and its long, gracefully undulating stalk topped by a magnificent flower that releases ambrosial perfume, Shulien is well rooted—connected to the earth—which gives her aerialist kungfu a suppleness and her person a purity and beauty that cannot be surpassed. For the Chinese the lotus has a strong iconic association as the Buddha is often seen sitting upon or surrounded by the petals of a lotus, and his boddisatvas (enlightened ones) are referred to as “lotuses.” Although rooted in mud, the lotus rises to a place above the waters to display its unparalleled beauty and fragrance, and it purifies the very water in which it grows, improving life for all the creatures in the pond. So it is with Shulien, who remains true to herself and whose discretion heals the hurts of history. For example, in her investigation of the theft of “Green Destiny,” she takes care to save Jen from public exposure, and during her fights with the impetuous young woman, she pulls her sword thrusts to spare her even as she bests this cantankerous attacker. However, in addition to the frenetic narrative insistence that each of the three female protagonists is made by a man she loved and lost, the film further eclipses lesbian erotic interest by compulsively substantiating a logic of maternal instinct: the good woman (Shulien) has it no matter how impetuous the daughter (Jen), but the bad woman (Jade Fox) does not.
While it is true that Shulien lives beyond the traditional confines for women, she fails to find fulfillment because, to a great extent, life is indifferent to female desire. But, lest it be said that what is needed is less feminism and more of Shulien’s sort of ideal womanliness, consider the price she pays in repression, in lost opportunities, and in remorse. In order to live the life that is hers, she must travel always, be alone always, be trained and on edge always— not bad things if they are really what she wants, but everything in the film, from the very first scene to the very last with Shulien and Mubai, tells us that she does not want them, or, at least, that she does not want them more than she wants him. She may be a capable and respected wuxia in jianghu, but the major chord of her life is sadness and aloneness, loss and heartbreak. She is honourable in all things—she gives and forgives; she is a marvel of self-control, never indulging in self-pity or selfish desires; she loses the most without being in the least guilty of ever behaving badly. But this portrait of mature womanhood raises the question: who needs feminism if it simply delivers us back into a prefeminist world of self-sacrifice and repression? Ultimately, Shulien fails as a model of progressive feminism because she is returned to the stereotype of maternal sacrifice—chaste, discrete, and unfulfilled.