Freedom

15/12/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin(book)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn

 

Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, portrays Abraham Lincoln’s masterful and determined political leadership in passing the 13th Amendment through the US House of Representatives and abolishing slavery by law.

As my memory serves, Abraham Lincoln was a tall and skinny man who spoke eye to eye from whatever lofty podium to whatever man, woman or child in front of him.  Perhaps the opening scene, where soldiers of the Civil War bayonet and stomp one another in hand to hand combat, serve to remind audiences that when Mr. Lincoln spoke, he had to first overcome the heartache of a trampled people in order to be heard.  To do this, the former President often tells a story that ends with a soft smile to invite the listener to come closer to his meaning.

Before President Lincoln meets the camera’s lens face on, two black Union soldiers stand before his shadowy presence as he sits atop a wooden railway platform.  They tell the man of their hopes after the war is over. President Lincoln (expertly embodied by Daniel-Day Lewis as weary, worn and regal) slowly comes into being as the man we all recognize.  Simultaneously homespun and larger than life, Lincoln asks how they’re doing.  One talks smart, making it clear his days of subservience are over.  “I don’t like the smell of boot wax and I can’t cut no hair.”  Lincoln responds with a story about his unruly, wire brush-like hair and how he wishes he could find a barber who could deal with it. They have to laugh. He makes his point. He is easy in their company but he won’t be intimidated.

Then, two young white soldiers – boys really – step in and thank him for his speech on the Gettysburg battlefield dedicating the National Cemetery. Mr. Lincoln wonders aloud, “Could you hear me?”  By way of an answer, they recite the few paragraphs he spoke.  At this point, shivers ran up my spine.  Tears flowed down my cheeks.  The black soldier who was fresh with his words finishes the last of Lincoln’s address.  Boys, really, who had only heard the speech once, committed his words to memory.  Quintessential Spielberg; there’s no way the soldiers’ memory is that sharp, but strong emotion runs straight through the scene, and from my own past. I could hear my own father’s voice teaching me those words.  As a girl, I remembered how hard it was to memorize them.  And yet they never left my mind.  Years later, as I stood in the Lincoln Memorial, I heard my father’s voice in my head as I read the inscription carved in stone declaring a new birth of freedom.  So, these boys –looking up from below, still at eye level and ready for the challenges of their day – set the mood and anticipation for Lincolnto bring forth its point.

It is, after all, a story well known: Lincoln freed the slaves.

But it is also, after all, a story not so well known.  It wasn’t the war that freed them. It was a wrangled effort, led by Lincoln and voted to victory by a cantankerous House of Representatives.

It is not well known that the Constitution of the United States of America needed to be amended to abolish slavery.  The war wouldn’t have done it.  In order for slaves to be free under the law and not just by the say of Lincoln, who held war president powers, an amendment to the Constitution was needed.  Lincoln shows the former President as an adroit politician leading and winning a bitter fight in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery before the South surrendered.  Without the 13th Amendment – that is, without being bound to a U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery upon return to the union – the Southern states could have retained slavery when the war was over.  This point the film makes clear.

Lincoln is a helluva story, not to be missed because it’s a great film nor because it’s an excellent history lesson.  There are lots of facts to be checked.  It’s the story within the story to which the film draws attention and sets off fresh thoughts about the inner workings of our democracy that make it an important film to experience.  The underlying message about the democratic process as a stage for endemic opposition upon which a dedicated reach for reconciliation of opposites plays for all seasons can be easily overlooked.

When Lincoln asks his wife’s black maid, “What will your people do once free?” she answers, “I don’t know what we’ll do with freedom, but free comes first.  I am a mother of a son who fought and died for the Union. That’s the way I’ll remember myself.”

“The door. It opens.” shouts Thaddeus Stevens to a fellow congressman knocking at his office door.  Metaphorically, this small piece of dialog captures the accomplishment of the 13th Amendment.   The film plays Abraham Lincoln’s use of power close to the vest but never in doubt. It is Lincoln’s willingness to use his power as he sees fit that opens the door for many tough arguments to follow.  What people will do with the freedom the amendment provides will result in many struggles for identity.  Lincoln felt driven to open the door, to let things happen.  He never let the mantle of authority drop, not to joke and certainly not to please.

1865 is a bare 100 years before 1965, a time when the fight for civil rights was in the streets again and dividing North and South.  Separate, but equally challenged.  Not as bloody a fight as the Civil War, but bloody enough to spur the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964. At the turn of the century, women fought for the right to vote; 1920 brought the 19th Amendment prohibiting denial to vote on basis of sex but not before women went to jail in protest.

Today, one more time, a struggle for freedom presents itself.  Many of the prejudices exhorted in Lincoln about black people in 1865 resound in current opposition to gays and lesbians.  Archaic but modern, many civil rights issues remain the same.  The Dalai Lama says compassion is the true normal for humans so when we’re drawn into heated oppositions, the return to center is what’s called for.

The cinematography in Lincoln exemplifies Lincoln’s ability to hold the outside at bay while he holds our attention on his intent: compassion.  Behind every window of darkened, often candlelit rooms and just beyond every outside scene, a white light glows and blocks the view. Lincoln’s lanky presence, brief words and lengthy stories lie within a dazzling brilliance, intensifying the masterful interiority of his vision.  His single-minded campaign to abolish slavery effects an historical victory for the world and ‘the unborn to come’ like a spotlighted, center stage act.  In the end, the light from another world comes in, shining upon his frail body lying dead in the center of a group of men in dark suits who will carry on.  However, as the victory vote came in that day so long ago in January, Lincoln stands amidst long, filmy white curtains filled with bright late light, holding his son under his arm and looking out a window where there’s nothing but the future to see.

Free is not an identity.  It’s a beginning of many searches by people who are free to argue fiercely in a ‘country where the fox and the hare say good night to one another’ (P.L. Travers).

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15/10/12 Film Essay # , ,

The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

 

At first, I thought The Master was going to be a story about a man returned from war who, drowning in the terror of his own soul, becomes thwarted in his search for solace at the bottom of a bottle.   I thought this in spite of an opening aerial shot straight down into glistening blue water, white foam ruffled by a ship’s wake, set to crescendos of stabbing orchestral music. I missed what I should’ve known: director Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention to fling his viewers out upon the sea of life, at least for a few hours.

Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) embodies the wasted life, the one soaked in booze from morning to night. He is budded from an alcoholic father and a psychotic mother whom we never see, walking crooked and thinking even less straight, never finding rest. Freddie crashes from job to job and, hopefully, doesn’t take too many others with him into the depths of despair where he resides. He’s a hare-lip, a marked man who’s an over-sexed illusionist living in a dream world and waiting for the rejection that will prove he’s everyone’s worst nightmare. Freddie’s bungling and treacherous in his search for a place to rest his weary, wretched soul. We will come to know him as a paradox of misery to be neither embraced nor denied.

It is the Master himself (a jovial, virulent Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who literally wrote the book on the fulfilled life — and whose name we will not learn until he’s arrested by the Philadelphia police for fraud — who enters the scene with promises of rejuvenation to those in need such as Freddie. He’s a 1950’s American phenomenon; a healer evangelist who bases his techniques in a science of evolution yet proves their effectiveness by sheer force of personality. As surely as the harelip repulses people, the healer draws them in. People fete him and follow him. He’s a family man with a capital F, a character that alludes to an underbelly of sexualized impulses that go unnamed and unexplained. When Freddie climbs impulsively over the side of a brightly lit yacht on a dark night after escaping from yet another fight, it’s the Master who welcomes him aboard.

What’s the bond between these two men? The spirits Freddie concocts and carries in a flask wherever he goes. The Master and Freddie share a passion for homemade moonshine, the kind that eats the gut and sends the mind into the stratosphere.

As long as a match isn’t lit, the symbiotic pair step-stitch an emblematic, universal balance of good and evil in search of freedom. Their idea of freedom exists in the elusive space of a spiral where up turns down, right slips into wrong and coming reverses into going. The Master insists the past can be revisited and left behind, and Freddie defies him. Freddie’s feet are rooted in the concrete of his heritage and yet never touch the ground he walks on. He’s an absurdity of spirit, living in spite of the toxicity of the drink he consumes but lacking a life worth staying alive for. By contrast, the Master infuses his followers with energy, lives his impulses lavishly and moves forward without doubt.

Even when Master’s fraud and Freddie’s assault on the police land them behind bars, they’re hooked into one another.  In jail, side by side in two wire mesh cages, Freddie smashes his bed, his porcelain toilet and himself to smithereens, while the Master speaks words of salvation, a hand on his hip: “I’m the only person who likes you.” Freddie’s failures pump the Master’s bottomless physical energy and stimulate his mind. He languished in boredom before Freddie showed up. Freddie may be a madman, raging against the slightest iota of confinement, but he’s essential to the confabulist healer who does his best work in the realm of extreme make-believe.

It would be possible to speculate on repressed homosexuality as a driving force in The Master, but the sweeping embrace of the question of freedom proves more compelling. The original image of rolling foam patterned in a wake’s surf repeats at critical moments in the film. When the foam breaks and flies away from the crest, the unruliness of freedom in nature is sighted. So Freddie and the Master merge and break, embedded in a magnetic flow, searching for their moment. These two men hug and release until one disappears in the sand of a desert far from the ocean whence he came.

As the film comes to an end, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dream of mankind goes on. Freddie inspires the Master’s second book, where the teachings have been altered from ‘recalling’ to ‘imagining.’ Together, they usher in a new era — the 1970’s — and leave the next century to us.

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , ,

AIDS Movies

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what motion pictures about AIDS are worth. Film has not simply changed a cultural attitude toward AIDS as a disease, preventing it from becoming closeted like tuberculosis was. Films about AIDS have broken through stereotypes, boundaries and emotional barriers that feed alienation and breed disaster between family members, friends and communities – not to mention nations. As World AIDS Day brings attention to the heroism required to bring unpleasant truths out into the open where health can triumph, take another look at films that have paid attention — and made a difference. What was once shrouded in darkness and prejudice has now begun to inspire kindness, courage and humility in people who thought it was only an affliction of ‘the other’.”

What films have made what kind of difference since 1980 – a scant twenty-two years – since the NY Times first reported AIDS as “gay cancer”?

The FirstParting Glances, 1986, dated as it may be, assumes what later had to be proven — gays are normal and worthwhile. It’s a milestone film, an up close and personal story of small scope where a freelance writer in Manhattan has a friend dying of AIDS and a boyfriend leaving for a job in Africa.

The BestLongtime Companion, 1990, dashes the stereotype of gay men as promiscuous against the wall, elevating their ‘manly man’ traits of caring, concern and fierce loyalty in a crisis to a well-deserved, long ignored, heroic status. It dramatizes a change in consciousness arguably equivalent to the atom bomb; no longer can even the first sexual encounter of any young person be innocent, free-spirited without fear of something more devastating than pregnancy or herpes.

The Oscar BestPhiladelphia, 1993. No doubt about it. Tom Hanks opened the hearts of the American people to AIDS. Hanks represents the apple of any parental eye, gift to corporate glory and the perfect honey of a guy to his honey who, in this film, happens to be gay. Watching lovable Tom Hanks, shut out by mean-spirited bigots, succumb to the horrors of AIDS brought the issue home to everyone. It could be you. What the film lacks in veracity of true experience by those who’ve ‘been there’, glossing over and idealizing realities, it makes up by being honorably memorable, embossed in the American psyche.

The Most RivetingAnd The Band Played On, 1993, reveals the terrifying fear, laced with every kind of resistance, that government agencies, gay groups and scientists alike felt while bringing the truth about AIDS to the American public. It documents the long, arduous trail of the Center for Disease Control’s initial discovery in Africa and San Francisco in the mid-seventies to its medical clarity of AIDS as a virus in the eighties. The information is enlightening, the search is intense and the performances – with special cameos by actors who know how to tap soul – remain fresh. It’s message of caring, fighting for the good of country, is still relevant to health issues now, approaching 2003, as we discover that half the population with AIDS are women.

The Most Life AffirmingBefore Night Falls, 2000, opens with a naked child playing with a dirty bottle in an empty dirt hole that serves as his playpen in Cuba, 1943. Reynaldo Arenas was born, as he says in the voice over “in absolute poverty and absolute freedom”. He managed, somehow, to publish twenty books and win international acclaim in spite of being scorned, hunted and imprisoned as artist and homosexual before dying in New York City of AIDS. A magical triumph of spirit, Arenas came to the U.S. in the Mariel boat lift with a friend who was not gay, bringing us a deeper, broader understanding of what freedom truly means.

The Most Like TV SeriesJeffrey, 1995, inverts the typical, almost infamous stereotype of the heterosexual man who cannot commit and tells it like it is. He may say he’s afraid to commit to someone he may lose (in this case, to AIDS) but, just like a man of any persuasion, his real problem is that he doesn’t have a clue how to connect emotionally so control is his only solace. Comedic as the film is, it never loses sight of the tragedy of AIDS — Patrick Stewart’s performance may be worth the whole movie unless you count his partner’s after-death message “Hate AIDS, Jeffrey, not life.”

The WackiestThe Cockettes, 2002. Has America arrived? It’s hard to imagine the antics of this group being received anywhere outside its Haight Ashbury origins, interesting to anyone but a groupie of sorts. But The Cockettes, half of whom died of AIDS have caught a national airstream, playing in movie art houses in major big cities all across the country. With little interest in anything but their ‘art’, The Cockettestreats its film audience like its old time theatre audience; they go for the laugh, performing life to the hilt with and without clothes, talent or restraint. The message? Life is short. Have a great time!

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08/06/01 Film Essay # , , , ,

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso CuarónCarlos Cuarón
Stars: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Daniel Giménez Cacho

 

“Y Tu Mama Tambien throws propriety to the wind. A young Latina woman not only bolts from her role as dutiful wife but takes a swipe at patriarchy as she initiates two young men into a realization of masculinity far beyond macho.”

Well you might ask. What happens when a young, married Latina woman steps away from the yoke of traditional female forbearance of a cheating husband to joyride with two rowdy adolescent males celebrating their last summer of freedom before going off to college? And what accounts for her choice?

As the threesome drive out of Mexico City into the countryside toward a faraway beach, a bricklayer knocked off his bike by an automobile delays traffic. It will be three days before anyone identifies the corpse. It will be three days before we know who Luisa is.

And the true identities of Tenoch and Julio (the suavely naïve Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal), two young men who run into their cousin’s young but older wife, Luisa (a lithe swift talking Maribel Verdu), at a wedding will also not be known for several days. Luisa, driving with determination but without intention to an unknown destination, will accidentally initiate them into sexual complexities they could have lived a lifetime without knowing – and will, no doubt, take a lifetime to unravel.

Tenoch and Julio are best friends. Tenoch comes from a wealthy family of privilege while Julio hopes his brains will give him a ticket to better things. They essentially ignore being from different sides of the track, swearing a blood brother friendship — charlostras. They have a manifesto of loyalty to one another. Julio and Tenoch take pride in their quickie sex lives with steady high school girlfriends who have gone off to Europe for the summer. They compete with each other in masturbating contests in broad daylight on parallel diving boards and share grandiose fantasies of sexual conquests. While attending a wedding together, they get the bright idea of hustling the lovely Luisa, their cousin’s wife who is a few years older. They invite her to take a ride with them to the beach, enticing her with descriptions of a hidden cove called Boca del Cielo that only they know about. They are, of course, making the whole thing up. They have no idea where a hidden cove at an isolated beach might be. At first she just laughs them off. But then, seemingly devastated by a phone call from her husband admitting that he’s having an affair, Luisa calls Julio and says yes, she’ll go. Taken off guard by what they view as a stroke of unexpected good luck, they scramble quickly to borrow a car and figure out what direction to go. Luisa dumps stuff in a bag and they’re off.

On the way, midst much jocular conversation, Luisa again surprises them. She seduces Tenoch. Then, when Julio becomes jealous, she has sex with him as well — casually, in a matter of fact manner, in the back of the car while Tenoch is driving. She exposes how easily each can be seduced, foregoing any pact they’ve made with each other. This completely turns the tables from fun to fury, bringing out the fierce but suppressed side of the competition between them. Luisa asks, point blank, wasn’t this what they both wanted? Wasn’t she just making a fantasy come true? Perhaps. But, her willingness to fulfill the fantasy guts the game between them and, for the first time, they face reality. Confessions flow. Tenoch has slept with Julio’s girlfriend and vice versa – more than once. Whatever fabric of control they created between them is gone. Their ‘charlostra’ contract looks silly; they’ve broken every rule. Now, without the restraint of a pact, their relationship really heats up. Emotions run strong. They physically fight and verbally attack one another. Luisa decides it’s time for her to make some rules and, if they want her to stay with them on the trip, she’ll be the boss.

As the threesome move closer to the beach, illusion and reality begin to merge. They enter another world when their car breaks down and they are thrown on the mercy of people poorer than poor who generously help them. Luisa finds and is given a doll by an old woman that has her name on it. By a fluke, at the end of a road picked more by desperation than decision, they wake up to a curve of sand by the sea beyond their wildest fantasy. Held quiet by beauty without agenda, they’re very far outside the familiar. And the guys are following Luisa’s rules, requiring them to shut up and do what she says. She’s established a different kind of order where truth reigns and secret cravings emerge. Somewhere along the line, Tenoch and Julio realize that things are turning out a lot different than they imagined. Then, an odd little man shows up in a boat, taking them to a restaurant he runs with his wife under a tent where they eat, dance, get drunk and let their emotions run free into the night.

Luisa begins to make love to Tenoch and Julio simultaneously. And then, stepping away from them as mysteriously as she stepped away from her husband, she leaves them. Caught in the heat of passion, Julio and Tenoch continue having sex with each other, finally venting the pent up attraction they’ve felt for one another that’s been submerged beneath a heavy legacy of egoistic competition between men. The next morning Luisa says goodbye to boys who have become men. Tenoch and Julio are left with a reality that has no words. What Luisa has released in them is more startling than revelations about their desire for sex with the same woman, transforming their beliefs about male identity. She pulls back a veil of truth, showing their notions of heterosexuality to be as flimsy as their pact.

On this trip to fantasy land, Luisa blossoms into a woman she could not have known as the good wife. She breaks away from a programmed passivity and deference, awakening two young men to a world of feelings for one another they didn’t know existed and would’ve never known if they had not crossed her path. In a moment of celebration, they may all drink ‘to the clitoris’ but Luisa’s daring comes from another source. She’s close to a destiny that goes beyond the destiny of her sex.

Remember Y Tu’s metaphor — the accidental collision with death as its end where the true identity of the corpse will not to be known until sometime in the future? Y Tu Mama Tambien taps into the ancient Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne showing what happens to men who insist on possessing the essence of female sexuality. They find themselves in an embrace with their own true nature. Tenoch and Julio return to ordinary life, having lost not only their innocence but their illusions of control. Luisa stays behind – as she says, ‘like the surf on the sea’ — on a pristine beach about to be taken over by developers.

On a trip half real and half fantasy, Tenoch, Julio and Luisa make their way through the Mexican countryside to the beach, encountering extreme poverty, military domination and social uncertainty. They see their culture undergoing change, losing an innocence of isolation that may, indeed, require a different kind of man in roles of leadership, married to its women and fathering its children. But will Tenoch and Julio integrate Luisa’s lesson of men loving men — or will tradition be too strong?

None of them will meet again. Well, technically, that’s not true. We see Tenoch and Julio say a last goodbye in a diner where we learn of Luisa’s fate – one she knew all along while we waited in the dark for a few hours to discover who she was.

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12/01/01 Film Essay , Published Works # , , , ,

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Hui-Ling Wang (screenplay), James Schamus (screenplay), Kuo Jung Tsai (screenplay), Du Lu Wang (book)
Stars: Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang

 

(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.

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