How Positively Levitating! Chinese Heroines. of Kung Fu and Wuxia Pian
SUZIE S. F. YOUNG
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The martial arts film continues a long Chinese literary tradition of fighting women who leap and somersault in perfect, trained weightlessness; unbound from the hearth and the altar, they venture forth to protect, avenge, challenge, and offend. This chapter considers some martial arts heroines of the kungfu film and wuxia pianf whose aerialism distinguishes them from the weightier representations of “action heroines” such as the big-breasted comic-strip heroines (Barbarella, Wonder Woman), the sexually exaggerated or perverse criminal femme fatale (the Bond girls), or the hysterically phallic and muscular mothers whose generative bodies will make (Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton) or break (Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver) humanity’s future (the Terminator and Alien series, respectively). In particular, I focus on the different ways in which the “aerial sublime” (Russo 1994,11) is valued in Wing Chun, made in 1994 and directed by Yuen Wo-ping, and Ang Lee’s more recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, made in 2000.2
In the majority of American big-budget action movies action heroines are not the leads but the sidekicks or supportive romantic interests; when women star as heroic fighters, they are avenging mothers or grief-inspired daughters contained within stereotypes such as “feisty heroine,” “tomboy,” and “butch."3 If the woman warrior has reached symbolic exhaustion in Hollywood’s blockbusters, spawning only sequels and series, she has also launched the receptive overdrive that greeted Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), in which three fighting women defy gravity as well as stereotypes and social expectations. Yu Shulien (played by Asia’s once highest-paid action queen, Michelle Yeoh) is a superior martial artist who displays an equanimity that epitomizes grace, strength, and compassion; Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is a bureaucrat’s daughter who shows fire that amounts to lightning, all flash and courage and reckless nerve; and Jade Fox (played by Zheng Peipei, a veteran of the wuxia pian since the 1960s) is a passed-over student of kungfu who becomes a formidable and deadly foe. At a time when any modicum of feminist sensitivity makes it difficult not to cringe at the idea as well as the actual flm of Charlie’s Angels (2000), Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (hereafter, Dragon) offers, instead, heroines whom we admire not for their figures, hairdos, clothes, or body (bawdy) humour but, rather, for their cultivated fighting skills, their moral deliberations, and their strength of conviction.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the fighting heroines in Dragon are the products of a millennial feminism. In fact, women warriors have always been integral to the wuxia pian, where they are judged not for the misogynist “feminine honour" of the chaste or coy “butterfly" but, rather, for their honour on the battlefield, their love of justice, and their courage in the face of evil; in these primary poetics of the genre, the women—as often as not—lead the men.4 Yim Wing-chun (Michelle Yeoh), the subject of the second film (Wing Chun 1994, dir. Yuen Wo-ping) in this chapter, is an excellent example as she sidesteps gender traditions to defend herself, her family, and her village against macho bullies, fighting nobly and bravely, and leaping higher and faster than the robber chiefs who terrorize the countryside.
When fighting women control the narrative trajectory as they leap, vault, bolt, hurdle, and fly, how far do they push the limits of cinematic femininity in neoconservative culture? In what follows, I seek out the occasions for feminist pleasure in Wing Chun as well as critique the ersatz feminism in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I do not suggest that those who trumpet the progressive in Dragon have it all wrong—certainly, all the female protagonists are active and capable women, and in their many battles they give at least as good as they get.5 However, Dragon’s women are consistently given only mutually exclusive choices—for Shulien, it is honour or love; for Jade Fox, duty or selfrespect; for Jen, family or freedom—so that, in the end, each of them is stripped of their freedom to choose. They battle each other fiercely, but still each loses everything she has fought for: Shulien, who had postponed love for too long
for the sake of honour, loses the man of her dreams to the poisoned dart of Jade Fox, who had initially killed out of self-respect but then forfeits that virtue when she kills out of convenience and jealousy; Jen, who had defied her parents and refused all obligations in order to seek and express absolute freedom, in the end leaps from the mountain for an eternal flight that is, if not death in fact, at least a kind of death. In contrast, the women in Wing Chun are “odd boundary creatures” who move tactically with their talents to help themselves and each other, and to contest enforced hierarchies; they are, to borrow Donna Haraway’s words, “signs of possible worlds” (Haraway 1991a, 22). In Wing Chun the women are introduced to us by the things they say, the actions they take, and the desires they have (individually and collectively), unlike in Dragon, where the women are introduced by their backstories of men they have loved and lost, as heroines in a fantasy of the lost phallus. When evidence of care, generosity, and mutual admiration among the women occasionally escape to the threshold of the visible in Dragon, the film becomes a hysterical text “in which the weight of the not-said.. .threatens to capsize the work’s literal meaning”6 (Modleski 1991,137). Dragon works hard to concentrate on friction by dramatizing the women’s unending conflict and continual antagonism, whereas Wing Chun delights in the three women’s differences and complementarities.