Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is by far one of the most beautiful things that have emerged from the age of cinema. Directed by Ang Lee, the film broke the US box office records, was nominated for 8 Academy awards including Best Picture, of which it won 4 – Best Cinematography, Best Original Music Score, Best Production Design and Best Foreign Film Award. This was almost unheard of for a foreign-language film, let alone one so heavily freighted with fantasy elements and another country’s mythology.
Throughout the soaring, flying and bamboo forests, the main battle of the martial arts picture is one of traditionalism, as it has been in so many of Lee’s films – the forbidden lovers in Brokeback Mountain and the lone boy in Life of Pi. The heroes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Michelle Yeoh‘s Yu Shu Lien, are bound to a kind of unbearable repression of their feelings. The only thing blocking them was Shu Lien’s engagement to Mu Bai’s slain friend. The love they had for each other was a barely investigated code of conduct that made them to be skilled individuals rather than a united, loving couple.
Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) was quite different. She hated the patriarchal system China was under and wanted to be free of it. Forced in an arranged marriage, she didn’t even know the face of her husband and longed for the freedom in the desert with her secret lover. As a result, she did everything she was not supposed to do as a woman in ancient China – steal a man’s legendary sword, run away from your wedding, and learn martial arts.
THE WOMAN WARRIOR
The martial arts field is associated and dominated by men. It’s not common especially in Asia to cast women as the leads, and so the emergence of woman warriors are a symbol of breaking out of the partiarchy hegemony in China. However, even though there is a presence of the female wu xia, she joins the lower ranks of petty swordsmen, who are ruled by their passions and aspire to become like the (male) master.
In Jacqueline Levitin’s Interpreting Gender Thematics in the Contemporary Swordplay Film, the portrayal of woman fighters or warriors in martial arts films have it all: “independent, to achieve, motivated, yet sexy & pleasing.” Our 3 female leads: Shu Lien (the female hero) functions as the mouthpiece of patriarchal establishment, Jade Fox (the conventional villain), yet her villainy was born out of scorn and resentment of the ban of females in the wudang. Jen Yu is an extension and reconfiguration of Jade Fox’s character, still struggling with her conscience.
Another note in female martial arts warriors is that while training is often central to the plot, “the woman hero typically arrives on scene already capable, that she gains her skill as though by magic, making females both formidable fearsome opponents to the men.”
There is a monumental difference between the love of Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien and Jen Yu and her secret lover, Lo. There is the fiery, passionate, young love of Jen and Lo, an aristocratic girl whose marriage is already arranged, and a desert bandit who steals her heart along with her comb.
But woven in with this is the unconsummated love between sword master Li Mu Bai and his friend Shu Lien, who runs a security firm. It is this more mature love, restrained by matters of honour, that for me forms the greater love story. Li and Shu are a generation older than Jen and Lo. The two have loved each other for many years but honour has kept them apart. However, he dies by Jade Fox, and even when Shu tells him to use his last breath to meditate and free himself from the world. he chooses to use it to say, “I love you.” Honour may have been their driving force, but at the end, they just wanted to love and be loved in return.