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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.