The APAHM Project Day 1: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Film: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Director: Ang Lee
Where to watch it: Netflix
Why it made the list:
Earning 10 Academy Award nominations, ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is regarded to be one of Taiwanese-American Ang Lee’s most successful films. Originally debuting in Asia, its release in the States garnered acclaim from critics and general audiences. This film opened the gates for Asian films to be popular with Western audiences and also helped actress Ziyi Zhang break into American films.
You know how sometimes memories come back to you randomly? Well, for some reason, we were discussing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and I recalled seeing this movie in the theater. My parents were surprised I remembered something from such a young age, 20 years ago. In fact, my mom didn’t even remember me coming to the movie with her. I told her I remember we went to the theater at our local mall and we saw it with my grandparents. However, my only memory of the movie itself was that it had yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen that I wasn’t even able to read (Since the film was targeted to a Western audience, Ang Lee knew it would need English subtitles. He took the time to go over the subtitles himself so that they were done properly). Fun fact, I actually don’t know the first movie I saw in theaters, but this is my earliest movie-going memory: seeing “Crouching Tiger” with my mom, grandmother, and late grandfather.
Last night was my first time watching CTHD since I saw it in the theater 20 years ago. I went in not knowing what to expect except a great film. It did not disappoint. The drama, the fight sequences, the intricacies of the characters were all captivating. The themes of the film are not uncommon, but Lee does a great way of entertaining us with a balance of fast-paced action and heart-felt emotions.
(I won’t go into a full summary here as I will assume you either watched the movie today or read a summary online.)
When beginning this movie, we meet Michelle Yeoh’s Shu Lien. Normally protagonists are revealed early on in the film and this is no exception. Yeoh is extremely prominent in the movie poster, positioned almost exactly in its center. However, Lee introduces a character who is equally compelling and who could arguably be the main protagonist about 20 minutes after he introduces Lien, Zhang’s Jen Yu. I’ve seen many of Zhang’s work, both in Chinese and American films and she has such a great way of making you hate her character when she plays the bad guy and love her character when she’s good. Yu is an aristocrat and is about to get married to a man she does not love. However, it is later revealed that Yu is a skilled fighter and thief after she steals the sword “Green Destiny.”
Let’s talk about the “Green Destiny.” It’s a one-of-a-kind sword that was once owned by Li Mu Bai, a Wudang warrior. Mu Bai loves Shu Lien and she loves him, but because she was once engaged to Mu Bai’s late friend, they do not act on their feelings. Mu Bai has recently retired as a warrior due to his master’s murder and wants to give the sword to a friend. Shu Lien delivers the sword, shows it to Yu upon meeting her, and that night, Yu steals it.
Now we come to the first fight sequence of this movie, and it’s beautiful. The gravity defying way they move is reminiscent of old Cantonese movies I used to reluctantly watch with my grandmother. Except those always felt a little cheesy, Lee finds a way for this weightless rooftop chase to come off as a mixture of dancing and fighting, paired with suspenseful yet calming string music against the Beijing night sky. Shu Lien and a masked Jen Yu continue to fight, showing off their skills, until Yu is able to escape with the sword.
It is later reveled that Yu is the apprentice of the well-known Jade Fox, the same woman who killed Mu Bai’s master. Jade Fox witnesses Yu fighting Mu Bai and notices Yu is well skilled in the Wudang fighting style. Later, Jade Fox confronts Yu. Jade Fox had stolen a Wudang secret book from the master after he refused to teach her. She gets a young Yu to tell her what the book says since she cannot read, but Yu kept parts of the book to herself, surpassing the skills of Jade Fox.
This is a classic student becomes the teacher trope, but as Mu Bai notes, if Yu continues unchecked, she could be more foe than ally. Mu Bai desires to take Yu as his own apprentice.
Yu is later overridden with guilt when Shu Lien, who she sees as a sister, reveals she knows who the thief is and that the thief is smart and unusual. Yu secretly returns the sword and runs into her old lover, Lo. We enter a long backstory of how they met and fell in love, now knowing more about Yu than we ever did about Shu Lien and Mu Bai, the supposed protagonists.
Yu’s guilty conscious to return the sword shows maybe she is more protagonist than antagonist. But does this counter the fact that she stole the sword in the first place and deceived her teacher? This is where Zhang’s excellent acting really comes in to play as you decide to root for Yu or not.
Yu runs away from her husband on her wedding night and steals the Green Destiny yet again. She gets into several fights, winning them all, before finding refuge at Shu Lien’s home. She and Shu Lien get in argument and Shu Lien denies Yu as her sister. At this point, Yu has, as we say in the South, gotten too big for her britches, and declares Shu Lien as her enemy. They engage in another beautifully choreographed fight, where it is clear to see Yu relies mostly on the Green Destiny’s power rather than her own technique and skill. Because if it weren’t for the sword, Shu Lien would have definitely won this fight sooner. After going through several weapons, Shu Lien is left with a sword that has been cut by Green Destiny and holds it to Yu’s neck, clearly having the advantage. However, she shows mercy and Yu takes the opportunity to cut Shu Lien’s arm, a low blow move. Mu Bai enters at this point and chases after Yu.
We enter what is probably the most iconic of the fight scenes, as Yu and Mu Bai fight in the bamboo forest. Impossibly light on their feet, they gracefully jump from limb to limb. Mu Bai expresses he wants to teach Yu and she agrees only if Mu Bai can take the Green Destiny from her in 3 moves. Still too big for her britches, Yu is in shock that Mu Bai takes it in only one. Yu demands for it back and refuses Mu Bai as her master, another example of Yu’s deceitfulness. Mu Bai claims the sword is useless if she is not willing to learn from a master, and throws it into the water. Immediately Yu jumps to retrieve it but appears to be floating on the top of the water, possibly injured. Jade Fox sweeps in to rescue her.
Another common trope is greed and obsession of power, both of which Yu possesses. Thinking she doesn’t need a master so long as she has the sword, she risks her life for it. The sword acts as her crutch for power.
Jade Fox feigns to care for Yu, but really tries to poison her. Mu Bai finds Yu alone and notices she is ill. Shu Lien and a security guard also find them and realize that Jade Fox is nearby. Jade Fox attacks, shooting off poison darts that Mu Bai, Shu Lien, and the guard all deflect. Mu Bai attacks Jade Fox and she dies, but not before she reveals 2 things: that she was really trying to kill Yu for deceiving her and that Mu Bai has been hit with a dart.
At this point, something has changed in Yu. She notes that she is able to get an antidote and asks for their trust. Shu Lien agrees and stays with Mu Bai, who confesses his love for Shu Lien before dying in her arms. Yu arrives too late with the antidote. Shu Lien tells Yu to go live her own life and that Lo is waiting for her on Wudang Mountain.
The couple reunites and share a night together. The next morning, Yu asks Lo to believe and what they wish will come true (see flashback sequence that I didn’t summarize earlier) and jumps off a bridge.
After watching CTHD, it is clear to me that Yu is the main protagonist. As my uncle said, she acts as the centerpiece for the rest of the characters. First appearing spoiled and naive, we see she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and quite a force to be reckoned with given proper training. But the one thing Yu wants from the beginning is not power, but freedom.
Yu is an aristocrat forced into an arranged marriage. This is one of the first things she says to Shu Lien and also expresses her envy for Shu Lien’s independent lifestyle. However, she later rejects Shu Lien when Shu Lien denies their friendship. Yu goes on to say that friendships aren’t real, which makes me think she was simply attracted to Shu Lien’s life but also hurt that her “hero” felt this way about her. The sword and her fighting abilities make Yu practically invincible where she feels she does not have to answer to anyone, including a teacher, which might explain why she rejects Mu Bai. However, Yu never earns the sword. She never learns to control herself or its power which causes so much trouble for Mu Bai and Shu Lien. The title “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is based off a Chinese idiom suggesting masters going unnoticed. I think it is clear that the masters are Shu Lien and Mu Bai, each who could have helped Yu become a better version of herself and maybe find that freedom. However, Yu refuses to recognize the pair as being teachers and having her interest at heart. Additionally, Yu feels the most herself with Lo in the desert, however, it’s possible she was more in love with the care-free lifestyle he gave to her. Her desire/wish is for the two of them to be together and is willing to risk her life based on a folktale that is probably untrue.
Tragically, Shu Lien and Mu Bai never get their happy ending, something Shu Lien might have been hopeful for now that Mu Bai is retired. She also expresses that she and Mu Bai wanted peace until Yu showed up. If we continue to see Yu as the antagonist, it seems unfair that she seemingly gets everything she wanted, even though she is confined to the compounds of the Wudang Mountain, and Mu Bai and Shu Lien do not.
The way I see it, Yu’s only way to be free is to die. And thus she jumps off the mountain, believing it will come true.
Ang Lee also does an excellent job at creating a three dimensional female character, as well as showcasing women in general. Shu Lien is clever and level-headed while also taking charge with her company. However, she is not afraid to love and express her emotions, something I see lacking in “strong, female characters” in action films. Yu‘s mother expresses how unheard of it is for a woman to be a murderer such as Jade Fox, showing that women are capable of villainous roles as well. I don’t think we need to discuss the complexity of Yu’s character anymore, but these three women take center stage in this film, with Lo and Mu Bai being more of supporting characters. While Mu Bai definitely has a strong presence and is integral to the film’s plot, he seems to be driven by his anger towards Jade Fox and his intrigue to become a teacher himself, perhaps to honor his late master.
Does it deserve to stay on this list?
CTHD definitely holds a special place in my heart, as it is one of the only movies I ever remember seeing with my late grandfather. I’m glad that I revisited this film now that I’m older so that I can really appreciate the beauty and depth of it. The music, drama, action, and visuals definitely make this a film worth watching for the first or hundredth time. Again, using themes we have seen before, Lee delivers them in such a beautiful way that also brings attention to the Asian culture and rituals. Just as this film had a huge impact on Asian film releases in the US, it has also prompted me to want to revisit other Chinese films I have on my shelf such as “House of the Flying Daggers” and “Raise the Red Lantern.”
CTHD was definitely a very complex film to kick off with, which explains this lengthy post. Tune back in tomorrow for a hopefully shorter post about Day 2’s movie “Kung Fu Panda 2.”