Although frequently described as a `martial arts epic’, the term `epic’ probably wouldn’t be applied to the story of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon under today’s common usage of the word. There isn’t a huge war between nations, or an evil villain hatching a huge scheme, or a magical McGuffin that everyone is chasing after. Part of why this film is great is that it’s a weave of fascinating character-driven stories. Particularly, the stories of three women.
[Warning: Spoilers for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000). The 2016 sequel will not be mentioned anywhere]
Even under the literary meaning of the word `epic’, (which means the chronicles and adventures of a hero), it isn’t really true either. The central character of the story isn’t a hero, but rather Jen (Zhang Ziyi), governor’s daughter who longs to live the life of the actual heroes, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yuen Fatt) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). This is about a young woman lashing out against her pre-prescribed role in society.
Mu Bai visiting Shu Lien are experienced veteran warriors and they frequently talk about their past quests and adventures. It really does feel like a movie adapted from a fourth novel of a five-book series written by Wang Dulu. Shu Lien and Mu Bai shown here near the end of their careers. There’s even talk from other characters about them settling down. So the film veers dangerously close to giving the impression that the most interesting events of this world are off-screen or already happened in the past.
But then we eventually shift to Jen’s story, who reads about Shu Lien and Mu Bai’s adventures and wishes to be just like them. Jen meets Shu Lien and immediately bonds with her. All this makes her family’s plan to marry her off to a noble family seem even more unappealing, and makes her want to escape from a life of being married to a boring person.
What’s really interesting is there are arguably some strong feminist elements that can be found throughout the movie. It’s probably because the majority of the main characters here are women and each of them have very different personalities. We have Jen, Shu-Lien, and Jade Fox (Jen’s mentor/caretaker who happens to be a villain undercover, played by Cheng Pei Pei).
Because of this, it is easy to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test early in the movie.
These women aren’t defined by the men in their lives. More interestingly, even within the context of the story where their society attempts to put them in positions subservient to men, the characters fight and rebel against it.
For instance, Jen’s refusal to be married off to a noble family eventually leads to her running away to live the life of the `hero’ that she always dreamed about. Her immature brashness gets her into fights with other warriors across the country.
And then there’s Jade Fox, with whom Mu Bai is seeking revenge because she murdered his master/mentor in events before this movie. While this character did not get as much screen time as the others, it was later revealed that it was because the master refused to teach the secrets of a particular kung-fu technique to women. Conventional wisdom states that the best villains are the ones where their motivations make sense, and are relatable
The actions of Jen and Jade Fox are mostly women lashing out against the patriarchy. One of them is the protagonist, the other is the villain. Shu Lien’s character is the only one among the three who appears to be treated as equal to Mu Bai by everyone around her. She’s wise and kind to Jen, and even when some of her decisions gets questioned by Mu Bai, he eventually concedes upon hearing her reasons behind her actions.
Shu Lien’s own character arc is mostly about her romance with Mu Bai. Not only does the movie show that Shu Lien is a warrior equal to Mu Bai, their feelings towards each other are equal too. Their relationship is always shown to be based on mutual respect and understanding. Something that’s grown out of a solid foundation of many years of friendship.
In this aspect, Shu Lien’s character subverts a common trope about badass warrior ladies seen in many movies. Usually, movies always seem to make their female characters who are competent in fighters either (1) don’t need romance at all, or (2) be excessively confident in their sexuality to the point of unsettling their stereotypically masculine counterparts. Shu Lien is a believable, human character that exists in a spectrum between these two (almost comically) extreme tropes. Shu Lien is confident, sure, but when it comes to her feelings with Mu Bai she doesn’t seem entirely certain what to do. Neither does Mu Bai seem to know what to do, either.
Jen also has her own romantic interest in the movie. Like Shu Lien, her romance does not completely define their character, but merely informs it. Through a flashback, we learn that she falls in love with a desert bandit (Chang Chen). However, unlike Shu Lien and Mu Bai, their relationship did not start out with mutual friendship and respect. The bandit, whose name is Lo, met Jen while robbing her caravan. Jen jumps on a horse and picks up a dead man’s spear to chase after Lo to recover a comb that he robbed from her. Eventually they got along, and they fell in love with each other.
For Jen’s case, her romance with Lo could be interpreted as a proxy for her romanticising a life of adventure in the wilderness. It isn’t really about her `getting a man’, but rather, the man himself is partly representative of the life she wishes to have. Does Jen really care about Lo as a person? Sure, but it is also clear that their relationship is akin to a young couple building a relationship based on their idealised concepts about each other. And it’s very different from Shu Lien and Mu Bai’s relationship – both of whom are aware of each others flaws and baggages, and accepting each other the way they are as persons.
Had this movie came out in 2016, would it be praised for its diversity of female characters? With social issues on the forefront being amplified by the internet, I’m inclined to believe so. Probably because this movie is sixteen years old and many of us would have forgotten about it, this movie is rarely brought up as examples for its great female characters. It’s easy to imagine MRAs getting upset about Chow Yuen Fatt hardly getting any fight scenes, but Zhang Zhiyi has three of the biggest fight scenes of the movie – two of them with Michelle Yeoh!