Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a gorgeous visual feat which singlehandedly legitimised Wuxha films beyond Asian audiences and Wuxha enthusiasts. Even though I enjoy it when the opportunity presents itself, I am not a Wuxha film fan, or an enthusiastic follower of action films in general. Yet this film offers something for almost everyone: great aesthetics, imaginative choreography, great casts, and tragic love stories. As enough has been written on this film already, I am going to focus on one aspect of film which stands out.
Before getting into the main subject, I must come clean about something: I have a very soft spot for stories featuring female warriors. I love stories about strong women, especially in period dramas. Women with swords and armour solicit more of an empathetic response in me than any other characters. Quite frankly, if the shield maiden were the main character, I would have continued watching Vikings. I lost count of just how many times I have watched through the entire season of Claymore. So it is easy to see why I love this film, because this story is all about women’s agency and the adverse condition against their development in my book.
This approach puts the focus squarely on one character, Yu Jiaolong, superbly performed by Zhang Ziyi. She is a young aristocrat who is about to be betrothed to another aristocrat. At first, she is introduced as a picture perfect maiden, who is understandably conflicted about this monkey business: marriage as a mean to the consolidation of estate and power. At this point, she could be a character from a Jane Austen novel. To her great annoyance, everyone else believes they know better than her what is best for her future. She wants to be free from it all, yet she is not quite sure in herself. However, Jiaolong, roughly meaning ‘graceful dragon’, is from the beginning clearly different from her counterparts; she knows what she is good at, and she is determined to pursue it. She is a formidable warrior in her own right with great potential. Desiring to test her true ability, she sets about to obtain the legendary sword, Green Destiny, formerly yielded by the sword master, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat). She wants to see what she can do with the sword of unparalleled legacy in the history of China.
Despite her inexperience and lack of proper training, the combination of Green Destiny and Jiaolong’s natural talent prove more than a handful, even for an experienced warrior such as Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), whom Jiaolong first admires as her big sister. For example, in their final encounter, Shu Lien emerges victorious by the smallest of margins. It seems Li is the only warrior who can outclass her in the combat. Yet, even in defeat, Jiaolong cannot be tamed. She mocks Li’s proposal to teach her the secret of the Wutang clan. She defiantly insults Li by calling Wutang a whorehouse, suggesting the fact that her early mentor Jade Fox was sexually exploited by the Wutang master. Jade Fox gets her revenge by poisoning the molester, stating Wutang warriors’ disdain to women as their downfall. Li is not the only one who is offering assistance to Jiaolong. Jade Fox calls Jiaolong her disciple, and Shu Lien never stop trying to persuade young dragon to choose the established path, whether it is reconciling with her family or marrying another man. Everyone around Jiaolong knows better, and everyone wants her to do what they think to be best for her.
Yet, she rejects every offer. Whilst it is easy to see her rejections as young and immature, I would like you to pause and think about her point of view, and what is it that she really wants. Paradoxically, to really understand what she wants, it is necessary to adopt her annoying, yet reasonable, well-wishers’ point of views. Firstly, assuming Jiaolong wants to become a warrior, it makes no sense for her to reject Li’s proposal. He is a legendary master, and Wutang is supposedly the best warrior school there is. Li would be more than happy to pass on to her Green Destiny, once she learns how to control herself. If she agrees, she gets everything she is fighting for. Or does she?
Secondly, Shu Lien’s offer to help her reunite with Lo in Wutang mountain seems ideal. Jiaolong would be free to be with her lover, who loves her more than his own life. On top of that, she would be training to possibly become the best warrior, even surpassing the legendary Li. Again, she would get everything she wants. Or would she?
Since the rest of characters can offer nothing but rubbish (Her parents? Oh, please!), I will refrain from making this list any longer. In any case, it is indeed puzzling why Jiaolong rejects such great deals. She wants to be with Lo, and she desires to become a warrior. Yet, in the end, she leaves Lo, and in fact, she leaves this world completely, not dissimilar to the manner in which Princess Kaguya wished to in Isao Takahata’s masterpiece, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (link). So what is the matter with Jiaolong? What is it that she really wants?
I think that, in the end, all she wants is the space and freedom to find out what she wants. With all the well-wishers pestering her all the time, she cannot freely try and see what suits her best. Yes, she is a formidable warrior, and yes, she fancies to become the strongest of all. Does it mean she has to dedicate her whole life to the Wutang way? Can she be transferred to another discipline later if she finds it more relevant to her own person? Can she also study something else? Can she invent her own way? Most certainly not. Yes, she did fancy Lo, and they had a connection. Does it mean she has to marry him? What if she doesn’t want to marry him? Should she be blamed for it? Why should she? Who would like to spend the rest of life with one’s first love? Who would actually be happy by doing so?
At this point, suddenly, the supposedly enigmatic character becomes someone to whom we can relate, someone whom we care deeply about. In the environment and the people she is surrounded by, Jiaolong has no space of her own, no time to develop herself in her own way, and no freedom to discover what it is that makes her life wholesome and worthwhile to live. In order to obtain that space and time, she is forced to fight with everyone around her, the very people who wish her nothing but best. Whilst they are genuinely well-meaning, they all fail to see what she truly needs. That space and time of her own to define her destiny, dear readers, is what she calls ‘freedom’. It is not a path of defiance and violence she wants. She simply needs freedom to experiment in order to know who she really is. Despite their good intentions, by denying Jiaolong this freedom, or her very agency, they become her adversaries.
And this makes this film truly tragic.
Unfortunately, things have not changed enough regarding the way women are treated. Therefore, before you start congratulating yourself about human progress, let me repeat it for you: matters have not changed enough for women, especially for young women. If you don’t get what I am suggesting here, it is time for you to watch this, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, again with fresh eyes. And listen carefully to what the women in your life can say about their experiences. Seriously.