by Mark Ahn
A dictionary would tell you that the Chinese philosophical principles of “yin and yang” describe how apparently opposite or contrary forces can be complementary and interconnected. This paradoxical duality of oppositional forces is at the heart of the narrative and within the main characters of Ang Lee’s 2000 martial arts romance, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The following essay will reveal major spoilers, though not for everything in the movie.
We feel the tension of duality in the core relationship between the swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and female warrior Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) right from the beginning. In the opening scene, Mu Bai surprises his long-time friend Shu Lien with the news that he wishes to retire from his life as a swordsman, despite his success and the unfinished revenge against the criminal Jade Fox (Chang Pei-pei) for the death of his master. Shu Lien asks why he wishes to retire, and we immediately understand the answer when Mu Bai gazes back at her, respectfully, but full of a longing strengthened by the years they’ve known each other. Even though Mu Bai is offering to discard his responsibilities to be with her, Shu Lien does not respond. We find out later that Shu Lien was once engaged, but her fiancé died before they could wed; as an honorable woman, she cannot marry anyone or she would disgrace the memory of her fiancé. How is she to choose? She is spared the awkwardness of an answer when the Green Destiny is later stolen, allowing her to avoid a decision.
Throughout the story, Shu Lien becomes more open about her feelings for Li Mu Bai, even warming up to actual conversations about their relationship. This would seem rather mundane to a modern audience, but in the context of 18th century China, Shu Lien’s candor is unusual, especially for a woman considered a widow. Their conversations lead to a growing emotional intimacy, and though their relationship is never fully requited (and thus their respective conflicts not fully resolved), their parting at the end is tender and courtly.
The women form a friendship, which is only broken later when Shu Lien tries to persuade Jen to give up the sword. Jen refuses because Shu Lien has become like every other person who tries to control her, and Shu Lien needs to do the honorable thing, which is to return the sword to Li Mu Bai. The disagreement turns into the best fight sequence in the entire movie.
Jade’s disappointment is felt by Li Mu Bai later, when he pursues Jen as his own worthy student. He sees into Jen as Shu Lien did, except where she sees a younger doppelganger, he sees someone who can fill the void in his life that Shu Lien cannot fill, as someone in whom he can invest his life, as a lover or as a mentor. The chase through the bamboo forest, with its swaying lush greens, slow motion, and ethereal score all point to a victory for Mu Bai for all of his persistence in pursuing Jen, but she refuses. She chooses the freedom of Green Destiny over whatever tradition bound wisdom the monk can offer.
Lee also mentions in his commentary that he’s fascinated about how women can interact with their hidden emotions in such repression and formality. This fascination can translate easily in a martial arts film, where hidden emotions are made manifest in the fighting. The ubiquitous Yuen Woo-ping handles the action; his best pieces of work here are the wirework and the centerpiece action sequence between Jen and Shu Lien. The flying sequences are notable in that they play along with the “soft” style of martial arts mostly used in the film (“soft” characterized by sweeping, deflective movements); the characters are not necessarily making explosive jumps, but seem to act on a natural weightlessness. The smooth, floating quality of the wirework makes it distinct from other movies and adds to the romantic tone that Lee is after (along with the iconic, classical score). The set pieces are excellent, and notable that they’re almost all with weapons. This was Chow Yun Fat’s first traditional martial arts film (which I found hard to believe) so all of his swordwork was brand new. The quality of the fighting is excellent amongst the principal actors, with little effects other than the wires, as far as I can tell. My favorite part of the action is that Michelle Yeoh gets to show off her considerable skill with no less than five weapons throughout the movie, which is no less than what an action star of her caliber deserves.
Kill Bill movies gain a little more traction.
I’m cautiously excited about the prospect of a sequel (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Destiny) which is currently filming, although I don’t think it will hit the same themes of duality and opposition that the first did. Yuen Woo-ping is directing, and his efforts tend to be heavier on the action rather than drama. In a cultural climate where audiences are noticing that their blockbuster action/hero movies are glaringly homogeneous, it’s reassuring that a little passion project, unlikely as it was to appeal with its foreign actors and subtitles and niche genre and inexperienced director, can leave such an enduring legacy.