Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

I share my journey with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knowing that his background as the director of Brokeback Mountain provides me with a renewed sense of appreciation for the finesse with which he crafted this wuxia film. Like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, the plot of the film serves as a mere backdrop to the themes of spirituality, sincerity, and deceit the spectator encounters. Also like Hero, this film is recommended.

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Jen Yu – the fiery, stubborn aristocrat, who steals the Green Destiny.

Although the film begins with the gifting of Li Miu Bai’s Green Destiny sword to his friend in Beijing, the mise-en-scene of Jen Yu – the sheltered, fiery, stubborn daughter of an ancient Chinese aristocrat – having stolen the sword is a critical point in the film, in my opinion. It is perhaps the first attempt at subverting the patriarchal order of which she is a victim; controlled by not just the men around her, but also the women. This is the same order that ironically her governess – who turns out to be criminal-on-the-run Jade Fox – is a victim of as well, having murdered the Wudang martial arts master who had taken advantage of her. The mise-en-scene of her angrily telling Miu Bai that his master “deserved” to die indicates that she possibly represents the female anger at the male patriarchal values. Her anger is an embodiment of the quote “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” from Euripides’ Medea.

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Yu Shu Lien – martial artist, business owner, possible victim of patriarchal values?

Though Yu Shu Lien – a martial artist and the heiress to her father’s security business – seems to somewhat subvert the dominant patriarchal order through her own dominance and skill as a warrior and business woman, she too is a victim. As she chases after Jen Yu to retrieve the Green Destiny, she tells her “the freedom you talk about, I too desire it”. However, Jen remains the biggest victim of the zeitgeist which dictates marriage as being “the most important step in a woman’s life”, that prevents women from roaming around freely, that expects women to “abide by tradition”, in Shu Lien’s words. Her fierce anger, which transforms into love for Lo, is perhaps an escape from the many forces – overt and covert – controlling her life. Through her, Lee emphasizes the importance of family and reputation in ancient China; Jen’s engagement is to further her father’s career, she cannot marry a man she chooses herself. Her identity as the thief of the Green Destiny must be concealed lest her reputation is damaged in the upper echelons of Chinese society.

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Jen Yu right before she understands Miu Bai’s wisdom.

Thus perhaps emphasizing that deceit is sometimes necessary to obtain one’s freedom and choices in society. Even Shu Lien argues that “a best way to trap a fox is through her cubs”, justifying deceit as a necessary element of war. Miu Bai, however, embodies the theme of war being a mental battle, as he tells Jen that “Even this sword is meaningless. It is just a state of mind.”. Somewhat spiritual, moral, and yet vengeful, he emphasizes his desire to change from violent to peaceful, from inexpressive of his love for Shu Lien, to expressive. Although the mise-en-scene of Jen fighting Li atop the branches of a tree indicates that her vengeful and angry persona hasn’t quite registered his emphasis on spirituality, the curious and somewhat moral woman later realises the wisdom of his, and Lo’s words. The mise-en-scene of Jen sacrificing herself for her love, instead of selfishly taking it for herself, is an embodiment of his words, that “by letting go, can we finally possess what is real”.

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Miu Bai and Shu Lien’s love – another example of sacrifice.

Needless to say, such a sacrifice could also be seen as the only possible escape from the traditional status quo of ancient China, where even Shu Lien could not join the Wudang martial arts academy due to her gender. Though there are no overt examples of punishment meted out to women who break these rules, perhaps the patriarchal dominance embodied the statement “be strong yet supple, that is the way to rule”. This is similar to the statement “speak softly, yet carry a big stick” embodying the American big stick diplomacy which while not overtly dominant, was subtly assertive. Perhaps fearing retribution to both herself and Lo for her actions, Jen chose to (presumably) sacrifice herself, the biggest travesty of the film.

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3 thoughts on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)”

  1. Exceptional review of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon! I was particularly stunned by your take on femininity in the movie. I personally felt that the movie was very empowering to females, featuring female characters who quite literally, kicked ass. The portrayal of women in the movie was very modern, with female characters having martial abilities on par or surpassing men, and women who were viewed enjoying intimate moments with men. Your take, however, was very much the antithesis of mine (unless I interpreted wrongly), which I found very interesting. In Shu Lien, I saw an upstanding and empowered woman, capable of feats beyond most men, but you saw a woman oppressed by the gender bias of her time.
    I also enjoyed your interpretation of Jen Yu’s love for Lo as an escape from her confines, of a life where her every move is dictated. Indeed, modern interpretations of dynastic China has always painted them as a backward and close-minded country that practices such outrageous traditions as arranged marriages. It is precisely this sort of oppression that has driven Jen Yu to her manic, unpredictable, and sometimes, spoilt behaviour.
    Well-constructed, brilliant and insightful, this review was an engaging and thought-provoking read. It really made me question my own analysis of the movie. Looking forward to your coming posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Judging from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, it seems like Ang Lee has a knack for directing films surrounding controversial issues!
    I am with you on the point that even though females in this film are depicted as capable and skilled, they are all still oppressed by society. I felt the 3 females in this film (Shu Lien, Jade Fox and Jen Yu) all showed different ways of dealing with that oppression. Shu Lien did what she could under the circumstances, much like most other women during that age. Jade Fox retaliate, taking what she wanted because she could. Jen Yu however, seemed more like the in between of the 2 woman, struggling with doing the right thing and getting what she desire.
    Strange that you think that Jen Yu stole the sword at the critical point of the film, cause it seemed like destiny (get that pun) to me that everything converged after that theft; with Jade Fox resurfacing and whatnot just as Li Mu Bai decides to give up on his vendetta.
    Really interesting read and insightful points! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another comprehensive and interesting review by you! I agreed with how you wrote about empowering feminism in this movie. The sacrifice and courage the woman in the film went against the norm of filmmaking in general. Like how you pointed out in your last bit where you mentioned: “Jen chose to (presumably) sacrifice herself, the biggest travesty of the film”. You did a great job in pointing how the elements of deceit in war and the mentioned the quote by Shu Lien. Good job on another great post! The thing that differs your posts to the others I had read was that you somehow always manage to capture the tiniest of details and include them. This is one of the major reasons why I’m always back here reading yours for inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

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