(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2001)
Watching Crouching Tiger; Hidden Dragon, I felt like a kid at a Saturday afternoon matinee. I can remember seeing ‘The Thing’ when I was ten. “IT” — whatever “IT” was — crawled out of the ocean and I crawled under my seat. I was sure the whole audience dove for safety. The distance between make-believe and reality collapsed easily when we were kids. But the same thing happened recently when I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When Ang Lee matches his masterful storytelling with the weapon artistry of warriors in a computer game, I bounded across invisible sheets of air right along with them. It was exhilarating. And, as the film seduced me into the possibility of the impossible, the fact that Tiger’s hero was a girl seemed to offer more, not less excitement. I suspended my disbelief for an eighty-pound girl as readily as I would for James Bond. And if there were any doubt that a story drawn from Asian mythology would appeal to American viewers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon put an end to it.
The trailer put us on notice. It promised a strong girl hero whose rebellious spirit would drive the film’s wild adventures. This girl enticed with artful deception, first pitting wits and moves against an experienced woman warrior of high style and grace. Then she walked out on a limb, weightless against gravity, to slash swords with a grand male Pooh Bah on the tips of a bamboo tree. I, like many teenagers, had crossed swords and gone far out on lots of shaky limbs challenging authority figures. The metaphors were powerful. Viewed from this perspective, the girl is engaged in a classic, cross-cultural Hero’s Journey identified by Joseph Campbell. But I awaitedCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon cautiously. I hoped the girl wouldn’t turn out to be another foil for a man’s crisis like so many big Hollywood movies. Could this girl stay true to a passionate desire for freedom in a world hostile to an empowerment of feminine sensibilities? The Wonder Woman of my generation never went beyond the identity of saving victims of crime. What would be in store for Ang Lee’s Wonder Girl?
THE HERO — Jen Yu (Zhang Zigi,spunky and engaging) is angry, fiercely independent, wanting freedom from the old system. She wants to be free to come and go as she pleases, like the heroes she’s read about in books. From her first appearance, in the room where a sacred sword will be stored for safekeeping, she is not where she is supposed to be. And she makes no apology for where she stands. This girl intends to take her place according to her own wishes, not the protocol of her traditions. As Crouching Tiger, it could be said that Jen feels entitled to be curious. As Hidden Dragon, she sports a cool demeanor concealing an irreverent attitude and a self-determined assurance. This girl wants more than the role of wife, which, for the moment, is the only future she has been offered. She has been betrothed to a member of the landed aristocracy, an old and boring man, a paradigm of the establishment and, to Jen, a constricted system of social values. Jen has her eye on a different kind of life, one with the magical powers and freedom of Zen warriors. And she’s not ashamed of her desires. She flouts her ambition. Like Muhammad Ali, she enjoys taunting her opponents with flippant remarks like “I’m just fooling around”. She fights against rule and prejudice, taking on some of the biggest, “baddest” men of the land — for some of the best fun in the film — to be free of traditions that constrain the movement and options for women. Surprisingly, the film does not belittle her rage. Perhaps, at last, a girl who faces the dead-end vision of feminine development in society can be acknowledged as legitimately infuriated.
THE CALL — Jen Yu’s heroic journey gets underway when she skitters in the dark, scarcely more than a shadow, over the walls of Peking and steals Green Destiny, the sacred sword of Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat, Asia’s Cary Grant), a Wudan warrior of the highest order. Jen steals the sword, not because she really wants it but because she can. Yes, the girl’s heroic call begins with her impulsive theft of an ancient sword, symbolic of centuries of sacred arts and traditions. What kind of a hero is this? She toys with rules not questioned by wise men and women. This capricious act of youthful female anger turns an ordinary story into an extraordinary one. An ordinary story would have the girl chasing after the power that the boys have. As an extraordinary story, the girl’s hidden motive creates a mystery quest. We will only find out what she wants by following her. She will provide clues in the form of confrontations spurred by intuition and emotion rather than planned by intellect or required for status.
The theft of the sword brings Jen into battle with Shu Lien (Michele Yeoh, soulful beauty) who is the protector of the sword, a Wudan warrior in her own right. Shu Lien steps forward against Jen’s hasty bravado. She demands Jen return property that does not belong to her. In this first battle between the two, they fly like blackbirds’ tipping wings across tiled rooftops and scooting fearlessly at high speed through Peking’s narrow streets. In what might be the most adrenaline-inducing scene and finest exhibition ofCrouching Tiger’s unique human appeal, Shu Lien, running along the top of a city wall, suddenly darts downward — supported possibly by a centrifugal momentum — and with her feet clinging to the bricks, stops midstride, stands parallel to the ground, reaches down and rips a chunk of brick from the wall, and hurls it at Jen. It is absolutely breathtaking!
Shu Lien, a mature woman who, although she inherited her father’s business and never married, still chose a traditional lifestyle that contrasts sharply with Jen’s determined quest for freedom. But now Shu Lien has been pleasantly surprised by the return of her past love, Master Li Mu Bai, the most acclaimed enlightened warrior of Wudan martial arts in China. Mu Bai has come to tell Shu Lien that he is breaking away from his esoteric training. He explains that after a period of intense meditation, he has not found enlightenment but only the vast emptiness of existential longing. He has come upon a profound sorrow spread so dark at the core of his being that he does not want to transcend it. Instead, he wants to change his life. He is laying aside the sacred ancestral sword, Green Destiny, which has been bestowed upon him. He no longer wants to serve the dictates of vengeful leaders and their endless cycles of war. From the restraint in their mannered speech, we know that this man and woman left a deep love for one another behind, many years ago, to follow traditions that excluded personal desire — much like the Henry James story, The Beast in the Jungle, where the protagonist denies his passion for his woman friend in favor of a quest for meaning, only to find after she dies that she was the meaning he sought. Due to circumstances of tradition, when Shu Lien was unable to marry, she developed her warrior skills to perform the duties of a security guard. Mu Bai now entrusts her with the sword that has defined him and she is the one who delivers it to Peking for safekeeping.
THE HERO’S CONFLICT — Jen evades Shu Lien in their first encounter and escapes with Green Destiny slung across her back. But her theft unleashes a sophisticated clash of wills between generations. When Jen Yu was ten years old, she felt her intelligence and catlike instincts blossoming. She surpassed parents, teachers and, especially her mentor in martial arts, Jade Fox (Peipei, dark, mysterious). But, while Jen honed her hidden talent, she complied with parental expectations. Now her theft pulls back the curtain, revealing crossed purposes at the heart of her soul. Jen has set her sights on freedom in a world which gives precious little freedom to anyone, certainly not to a slip of a girl from a prestigious family destined to marry and cement ties of political dynasty. She is destined by the traditions of her land to be married but destined by her spirit to take a path not cleared before her.
As hero, Jen’s internal conflict vividly reflects the clash of the old with the new in society. Young people often rebel to transform and transpose old values. Their desire for freedom to be individuals reflects their desire to affect their families and culture with their own lives. Girls in modern society face a particular pain. A boy typically knows there is a role for him at the end. But there is no place for a girl as a returned hero. She is driven by a sadness and an excitement that she might be the one who discovers a new way. In a sense, a girl hero embodies a different kind of heroic quest, one of the old being transformed by the new. There is no traditionally established, public call for a girl to join society in any other way than through constricted roles. The calling for full development, therefore, comes from within — often from an impulsive action.
THE QUEST – Men in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may scoff at Jen’s bravado but they don’t trivialize her desire. Jen is not just a female hero fighting like a man. And her desire goes beyond the familiar fervent need to be coupled with a man. When Dark Cloud (Chang Chen, dashing and sensitive), the young leader of a band of renegades, attacks her father’s caravan in the Gobi desert and steals her comb, Jen is fierce in her determination to retrieve what belongs to her. This girl will not be stolen from. But the leap from her carriage window onto a horse chasing Dark Cloud across the desert takes her into an unexpected territory of love. Though she will not be taken, she learns that she can be seduced. Not without symbolic significance, Dark Cloud finds water in the desert for Jen to bathe and refresh herself. It’s only as Jen experiences sexual desire rising in her own body that her feelings for Lu soften and change. When she yields to Dark Cloud, it is with feelings that can be given but not stolen.
However, Jen’s quest does not end here. Though she falls in love with Dark Cloud, coupling is not the culmination of her journey. Her love sharpens the edge on her internal conflict, sets the stage for stealing Green Destiny and coming into the critical encounters with both Shu Lien and Mu Bai that will eventually transform her into a mature, morally developed woman. She returns to her father’s house after her stay in the desert with Lu, ostensibly to marry within the family tradition. But on her wedding day Lu shows up and she bolts. A life in the desert, even in love with Lu, is not an answer. Society allows this couple no more acceptance than it has Mu Bai and Shu Lien. Her love drives her deeper into conflict, deeper within herself. She takes to the road, disguised as a boy and ready to do battle to prove herself worthy of an independent life. But a successful resolution of her problem requires more than flashy moves against outside enemies. Her distinguished elders, Shu Lien and Mu Bai, who followed the old ways and put aside personal love, have lessons of the heart to teach her. Still, while their history of lost love casts a protective shadow on Jen’s romantic adventures, it holds no vision for an outcome. Jen’s desire will serve as compass as well as inspiration for her on her journey.
NO EXIT — When Jen follows her instincts out onto a limb against Mu Bai, after rebelling against Shu Lien’s advice, she meets an opponent who has examined the questions she’s just beginning to ask. In his current search for freedom, he represents a novel adversary. Mu Bai deems Jen a woman destined for more than male conquest, more than a prize for a male ego. He acknowledges her exceptional talent and offers to teach her. But Jen is suspicious of Mu Bai’s intentions. And even though Mu Bai breaks through her youthful disdain for all that comes from a previous generation, he makes a fateful error when he requires her to bow to the same system that has deprived him. When he offers her entry to Wudan Mountain, she calls it a whorehouse; implying women are used but not taught there. Her childhood mentor, Jade Fox, suffered the consequences of its prejudice and became a hated enemy of the state by murdering a Wudan warrior who took her as concubine. Jade Fox stole a Wudan manual of training as revenge for the warrior’s unwillingness to teach her and taught Jen its secrets. But, Jen could read the text of the manual while Jade Fox could not, so she was able to develop talents far beyond her mentor. This ability to “read” is emblematic of the trans-gender and trans-generational themes in the film: the socio-economic chasm between aristocracy and the servant class that constricts women as well as the difference between two women of two generations. The fortitude and initiative taken by Jen to learn more than her so-called teachers and surpass both their accomplishments and their expectations highlights a familiar break between parent and child but also reveals a hidden resentment that the old use to hold back the young. Jade Fox accepted her inability to read; Jen considered it merely a further challenge. Jen, lacking clear direction, refuses to join either side of the old system of warfare — as a Jade Fox rebel or a Mu Bai warrior.
THE ORDEAL — Though Jen honed a keen intelligence while being tutored by her childhood mentor, she underestimates Jade Fox’s possessive agenda for her. When Jen refuses to kneel before the power of Green Destiny, Jade Fox finds an opportunity to bring Jen back under her influence. She captures and drugs her, hoping that Jen will have no alternative but to join her. Mu Bai attempts to rescue Jen. But Jade Fox wages an underhanded battle with poison darts and kills him. Now Jen is no longer an innocent; she grasps her ignorance. Shu Lien, devastated by Mu Bai’s death, demonstrates an awesome balance of emotion. As rageful loss vies with soulful compassion, she sobers Jen with a profound lesson of forgiveness. She shows the heroic child that freedom without empathy is no freedom at all. These extremely moving emotional interactions with Mu Bai and Shu Lien awaken Jen to the destructive side of her genius. And, in a tender moment of acceptance, Shu Lien demands a promise from Jen — not to be careful but to be, above all else, true to herself. Shu Lien’s charitable disapproval of Jen’s shortsighted, youthful acts of grandiosity is astonishing. In soul shattering times, Shu Lien’s kind, fierce and unconditional love dissolves barriers of blame.
THE BOON — Jen becomes a hero of a feminine sort, adept at stepping lightly between mind and body. Each step takes her closer to her destiny, an enactment of the courageous action asked of any conscientious individual. Her path goes through a labyrinth of contradictions. Just as Jen thinks she reaches clarity, she is met with an impulse in an opposite direction. To become more than she imagines she can become, she is called upon to master both disappointment and disillusionment. From this mastery comes a straightforward boon of heroic proportion — an ability to balance chaotic feelings with uncertain capabilities. The call differs radically from the one of self-sacrifice that most teenagers hear today as they face demands for exceptional performance in a highly competitive world. The familiar call of self-sacrifice attempts to persuade young people that they will achieve their dreams by complying with society’s agendas. The call for a mastery of self, aimed at calming ravaging emotions and navigating ambiguous outcomes as a way of life, is a modern challenge for young heroes in a society where no table has been set.
BEYOND THE OLD WAYS — Mu Bai loosened the grip of service to a society based upon elitism, dominance and certainty but he still represents an old hero. He has been taught, like many young people have been taught, to keep frustration to himself rather than change direction, embrace his feelings and act effectively for the health and well being of all people. Jade Fox became addicted to her rebellion and was as surely limited by it as by any system of the state. Neither Mu Bai nor Jade Fox break through the illusion of superiority ingrained by their warrior training. Only Shu Lien sees through Jen’s drive for freedom to the larger issue of personal freedom. Shu Lien layers moral intent into Jen’s desire and helps her move toward an elusive but full feminine identity. Shu Lien can imagine a mature feminine presence in public life but she has not lived a life grounded in a determination drawn from female sexuality. This is a new way, one confounding in its complexity but actively pursued by the younger woman. Jen’s last heroic action in the film is a leap downward into a flowing stream of mysterious water. She is taking us toward a new vision of the feminine which lacks contemporary definition, has not coalesced into a recognizable identity in society and lies somewhere in a girl who continues to move — somehow –toward her heart’s desire.
When Dark Cloud and Jen were in the desert, he told Jen a story about how he became a man. To fulfill one’s dreams, he had heard the old folks say, you must leap off a mountain into the dark abyss below to an unknown fate sustained only by a belief that “a faithful heart makes wishes come true.”
THE END — We all need heroes and mentors. Jen and Dark Cloud help us to see an adventurous fresh start for lovers who are both intent upon living fully and deeply. And, someday, their relationship will form a springboard for others just as Mu Bai and Shu Lien’s has been for them. Jen and Shu Lien will surely meet again to teach each other more of life’s lessons. There just aren’t enough female heroes around who are warriors of the spirit as well as the fist and the kick. And there aren’t enough adults willing to tell young people the truth of their own awakening. The audience that sharedCrouching Tiger with me loved the opportunity to identify with a girl who fought for the freedom to be an individual. No one minded that she needed more than fancy footwork to achieve maturity. Young people today often claim more authority than their age and experience warrant because heroism is not linked to the heart. Jen models a hero who breaks through emotional as well as physical barriers as she transforms into a carrier of society’s hopes and values for tomorrow. She inspires an invigorating new vision and advances a cultural reformulation of our image of hero articulating extraordinary interior as well as exterior leaps of accomplishment.