Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: the unruly Asian female uprising

A. Body ideals of the protagonists

1. Jen: Opposite of most female images in past martial arts films: Jen is not a sacrificing mother, not a docile daughter, not a tender sweetheart, nor a lenient pupil. In the beginning, she is a coroneted well-bred young lady from a respectable family by day, a highly skilled and well-trained masked thief and warrior by night. As the story progresses, she unveils to be an unruly girl, a femme fatale, a Pandora. In a way, Jen is a desperado with a permanent spur to fight against anybody she meets as a defense mechanism, as an existential manifesto and as a way to obtain her liberation.

Jen doesn’t return the viewer’s gaze with “some kind of smile, inviting”; instead, like the male characters would usually do, she stares at viewers. This look delivers an intimidating and even penetrating power over her male counterparts. With no imagery of explicit nudity, Jen possesses both an angelic face that is irresistible to men and women alike, and demonic destructive martial arts skills that can defeat almost everybody: because of her dangerous attractiveness and young spirits, even Li, the master of Wudang Swordsmanship would like to take her as a disciple though Wudang has never taken any female student before.

Mu Bai declares it’ll be a win-win situation: Wudangg martial arts system can be passed onto the next generation by this rare prodigy and Jen would be tamed and refrain from any further vile behavior, this, however, also shows his “contradiction between libido and ego” – he can conquer Jen physically in terms of martial arts and he also desires her in a dormant way, but the unspoken commitment between him and Shu Lien prevents him to act upon his impulse so such a desire transforms into a wish to incorporate Jen spiritually as his pupil.

2. Shu Lien: in terms of pure win or lose, she is not a winner as she is widowed at a young age, bearing the loss of her fiancé and thus not daring to disobey the moral discipline in order to be with her beloved Li; after a series of incidents Jen arouses, Shu Lien once again, loses the love of her life: she is, in a sense, a total loser, with no ability to conquer her ‘enemy’ or protect her love. However, in a traditional Chinese martial arts context, she is the one to be acclaimed as she is prudent, considerate, and most importantly, morally correct.

Western audience might find it difficult to comprehend why the unexpressed love between her and Li Mu Bai is acclaimed to be a virtue: as a matter of fact, in the world of martial arts, the most important codes of behavior are honor and righteousness, grace (one good turn deserves another) and vengeance (villains should be brought to justice). If Jen’s rebelling acts look tempting and invite the audience to identify with her, then the character Shu Lien, despite several combats against Jen, serves as the backbone to preserve harmony when Jen steals the sword, the big sister when Jen feels helpless and needs clean clothes, the defender when others entice her to kill Jen as a punishment: all this shows rare sisterhood in the martial arts film as female characters often run into jealousy in a love triangle or fight against each other for triviality, power or honor. The film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) portrays the female as ideal human beings: compassionate, conscious, courageous and conquering.

B. Empowering liberation as positive alternative representations to “women’s genres”?

Jen’s natural appealing appearance and her unassailable acquired martial arts are empowering because she achieves the almost incompatible balance of beauty and power: adding one more dimension to the conventional female representations – her seemingly fragile face is a deceiving mask to perplex her opponent and bestows her better chance to win. Laura Mulvey would suggest: “the look, pleasurable in form, can be threatening in content.”

Jen rebels against patriarchal authority to secretly learn martial arts while as a girl born to the silver spoon she is expected to stay indoors and do embroidery; against the arranged marriage which is designed to further her father’s career in the government; against her love as she feels as much as her passion towards him is inflaming, she needs to be free from any care; against her big sister to declare her newly-found autonomy, yet she is not an ungrateful or cruel person.

The reason that she does all this is because she wants to establish her identity, independent of male guidance and others’ discipline over her in the name of love: total liberty is all that she pursues. Curious about the outside world, she is not content with the affluent yet predicable life as a canary in the cage: “Pandora’s gesture of looking into the forbidden space, the literal figuration of curiosity as looking in, becomes a figure for the desire to know rather than the desire to see, an epistemophilia.” She is ultimately a veracious explorer and a quick learner.

When Jen takes French leave after her wedding and hits the road, she uses cross-dressing as “a foregrounding of performance, of ‘acting tough’, of confrontation and bravado.” It brings her convenience to travel in the male-dominant society and functions, to some extent, as a practical joke she plays on the strangers whom she fights against with ease. Also, dressed as male, she delivers a silencing power with her androgynous look.

She drifts along the border between the good and the evil, the male and female, the oppressed and the liberated: such ambiguity is her way of self-discovery. In the end, Jen’s leap off the cliff is not necessarily a bow to the situation, a revocation to her past endeavors, or surrender to the norms. Instead, it should been read as a final rescue and relief as in Taoist philosophy, to let go is to take control. In the situation of nothing left to lose, one can find the eventual freedom.

Jen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a positive alternative representation to the melodramatic or over-materialized “women genre”. While “popular texts normalize post-feminist gender anxieties so as to re-regulate young women by means of the language of personal choice,” the female audience is actually turned into fanatical consumers of the mass culture.

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