Bright Lights Film Journal

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Art Film Hidden Inside the Chop-Socky Flick

Ang Lee: third-wave feminist?

The reviews of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon have been positive – but the critics, somehow, seem more impressed by the trimmings than the turkey. To declare that Crouching Tiger’s main achievement is the creation of “chop-socky for the caviar set” (Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post) or “don’t-miss cinema, but hardly an originary thrill” (Chuck Stephens in Film Comment) or “just the film for an audience transfixed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times) is to damn it with faint praise. After all, they’ve been making martial arts films in Hong Kong for decades, and American connoisseurs discovered them long ago. Furthermore, Lee is best known for his trenchant character studies: Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm. It’s as if Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) were suddenly tapped to direct the next episode in the Star Wars series.

So the critics explain that Lee was raised on Hong Kong action flicks, assert that he’s trying to recapture his childhood, and praise Yuen Wo Ping’s beautiful action sequences while desperately trying to avoid using the word “balletic.” The reviews read like those of The Matrix, Mr. Yuen’s last major work of fight choreography: truly bodacious action flick; not much else. To read them is to wonder whether they are “holding up” a talented director, reluctant to say they couldn’t find anything profound in the film.

Was it the subtitles? The flying female fighters? Yo Yo Ma’s hypnotic cello solos? Something certainly kept critics from searching for substance.

But after seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a friend, she asked a crucial question that made me wonder what was lurking underneath all the razzle-dazzle: at the end of the movie, when Jen (Zhang Ziyi) jumps off the mountain at Wudan, what does she wish for?

The obvious answer is something sentimental, in keeping with the epic-melodramatic aspects of the movie: she wishes that she had arrived in time to save Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), or that she had listened to Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and returned to her parents.

But there is another answer, more in keeping with Crouching Tiger’s deeper feminist themes: she wishes to be reborn as a man.

Critics have noted Crouching Tiger’s portrayal of female martial artists in premodern China, but on closer examination these powerful women are more problematic than they appear. The setting of the movie may be anachronistic, but the story is thoroughly modern. Even in a world where one of Shu Lien’s (male) retainers, who just had a baby daughter, can say “I hope she’s half as strong as you,” the martial arts are still a male preserve. If, as we are told, women martial artists are denied access to the academy of Wudan, then the movie’s main female characters are Yentls of the martial arts, learning behind closed doors, stealing knowledge they should not possess.

The real story of Crouching Tiger is how its main female characters reconcile (or fail to reconcile) their femininity with their professional development, a struggle any 21st-century career woman would find familiar.

The struggle between the “feminine” and “masculine” principles of yin and yang, the creative conflict that is the cause of all action in the world, takes place both between characters representing opposites, as well as within characters. It is their quest to balance themselves, to bring their yin and yang into harmony, that drives the movie. It is no accident, therefore, that the female characters number three: Shu Lien is the most feminine, Jade Fox (Chang Pei Pei) the most masculine, and the action of Crouching Tiger is driven by their fight for the soul of the troubled Jen.

Of the three main female characters, Shu Lien has most effectively balanced her feminine and masculine sides, but she has paid an emotional price that Jade Fox and Jen are unwilling to pay. She has achieved professional success at the price of throttling her desires (and as she herself notes, in a remark more Viennese than Chinese: “if we repress our emotions, they only become stronger.”)

Throughout the film, Jen swings wildly between the hyperfeminine (when she first meets Shu Lien, for example, or before her wedding) and the hypermasculine (dressing as a ninja to steal the sword Green Destiny, or braiding her hair into a queue and wandering the countryside as a marauding rogue). She repeatedly appeals to Shu Lien to lead her back to her feminine side, but the masculine in her is clearly stronger. Before making love to the Xinjiang bandit Lo (Chang Chen), she penetrates him with a stylus –and he bleeds, although she is the one being deflowered (and she is always “on top” in bed.)

Jen’s fascination with masculine symbols is also apparent when she first sees the Green Destiny. Jen caresses the sword, and her Freudian enthusiasm for it is clear. She asks Shu Lien: “Are you a swordsman?” Lien, carefully, replies that she prefers a more feminine weapon: the curved machete. (A later cut from the policeman Tsai polishing his curved sword to Jen practicing calligraphy underscores the idea of a “female weapon.”) But even Lien admits that “sometimes a sword is necessary” – and, in her climactic battle with Jen, it is with the sword that Shu Lien finally bests her.

Shu Lien attempts to encourage Jen’s feminine attributes. In their first battle together, Shu Lien engages in a veritable tango with Jen, trying to keep her feet on the ground (earth being a female symbol and sky a male one). When Jen comes to her dressed in men’s garb, Shu Lien gives her women’s clothes to wear; when Jen runs away from her husband, Shu Lien tries first to return her to her parents, and then to give her to her former lover Lo. Jen realizes that she needs Shu Lien’s help if she is ever to reach equilibrium, but she also resists any elements of womanhood: in one of their first meetings, Jen declares that an obscure issue of honor should not keep Shu Lien and Mu Bai apart, and Shu Lien retorts, “I may not be an aristocrat like you, but I still must obey a woman’s duties.” Shu Lien, third-stage feminist!

The sword, in Crouching Tiger, is contrasted with the comb. The action of combing her hair triggers Jen’s first flashback to the desert where she lived with her lover Lo; it is Lo’s theft of a comb, and her pursuit of it, that leads to her affair with him, and she leaves it behind with him when she departs. This allows us to associate the comb with the feminine principle, as we have already associated the sword with the masculine.

After the flashback, Jade Fox enters and begins combing Jen’s hair. We might interpret this to mean that Jade Fox’s attentions – and, by extension, her relationship with her “disciple” – are sexual in nature, as are her accusations that Jen has “betrayed” her (and the accusations by Mu Bai and Shu Lien that Jade Fox has “corrupted” Jen have a distinctly homophobic tenor).

We might be forgiven for thinking that it is only Jade Fox who associates the martial arts convention of “master” and “disciple” with a dominant-submissive sexual relationship. After all, her anger at the Giang Hu underworld has its roots in the fact that Mu Bai’s master, Southern Crane, slept with her but refused to be her “master” in the pedagogical sense.

Not so, though, because Mu Bai’s desire to be Jen’s “master” is also clearly sexual. When he first proposes the relationship, Jen’s reaction is to scream: “Wudan is a whorehouse!” And when Mu Bai mentions to Shu Lien his intention to sponsor Jen’s admission to Wudan, Michelle Yeoh’s acting tells us that Shu Lien’s jealousy is not merely professional. Confirmation comes at the end: a drugged Jen bares her breasts and asks Mu Bai: “Is it the sword you desire, or me?”

This idea is incipient in the very first conversation between Shu Lien and Mu Bai, in which he says that he was meditating and found himself in darkness, “surrounded by a great light.” A cut to Shu Lien reveals that it is she who is the “great light.” Then, Mu Bai says that something was drawing him back to the world. It first appears that he is speaking of his affection for Shu Lien , but on further reflection, we must realize that it is a red herring. Shu Lien is the light that surrounds him and encourages him to stay in his meditative world. At no point does Shu Lien encourage Mu Bai’s physical desire for her, which will tie him to this world – even as he is dying, she encourages him to think of heaven with his last breath, not of her. (More of the womanly self-denial that Jen scorns.)

If anything is drawing Mu Bai back to the world, it must be his desire for Jen, even though they have not yet met. This implied sexual relationship is the reason women cannot go to Wudan; to learn the martial arts, Wudan demands that they surrender their freedom. This is something that male martial artists are not expected to do, and Jen repeatedly states she wants freedom. Jen’s accusation is not mere hyperbole: Wudan is a whorehouse.

What about Jen’s suicide, then? She rues the damage that her excess of masculinity has caused, but she is still unable to reconcile herself to femininity, particularly under the impetus of Shu Lien’s injunction “whatever you do in this life, be true to yourself.” Returning to Lo and assuming the role of a wife would not constitute being true to herself; and therefore she returns her comb to Lo, renouncing her feminine side, and throws herself off the mountain. In a way, we can regard Shu Lien’s last words as a death sentence; having proved unable, twice, to kill Jen with a sword, she now does so with words.

It is a sign of tremendous skill on Lee’s part that he manages to insert into his epic such a profound commentary on the situation of the modern woman. Imagine Jade Fox as the strong professional woman who is perceived as too “aggressive” and even “bitchy,” while her equally aggressive male colleagues are spared this criticism; Shu Lien as the woman who works twice as hard as her male colleagues to reach the same stature, sacrificing her personal happiness for professional success; and Jen as a beautiful, capable teenager trying to set her priorities: career or family?

In this sense the film has the greatest resonance for the modern world; it reaches beyond “positive female role models” to explore how they adapt in a world that does not overtly oppress them, but is nonetheless full of glass ceilings, sexual prejudices, and predefined images of masculinity and femininity.