Fans burnt by George Lucas' "Phantom Menace" found solace in Ang Lee's cosily straightforward "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon". The film was greeted with a shrug in China (it was a flop), a country desensitised to wuxia tales, but Westerners loved it. Probably because "Tiger" is basically "Star Wars", with its own assortment of bounty-hunters, Jedis, Sith Lords, princesses, rogues, warriors, villains, henchmen, Yodas, fairy tale romances, teachers, masters, apprentices, chosen ones and much vague talk of destiny, fate and "light" and "dark" sides. When he's not indulging in super choreographed action sequences, Lee's aesthetic is also very Lucasy, which is to say, very John Ford, very David Lean, very Kurosawa, with clean lines, big open spaces, and simple but careful shot selection. What's strange is the film's budget. The film looks like it has the budget of one of those big, state backed Chinese or Stalinist productions, but "Crouching" was made for about fifteen million dollars. Lee gets a lot of mileage out of his budget.
Martial arts fans abhor "Tiger". It's too geared to western tastes, too watered down, and China's been churning out similar wuxia for decades. Why should this one get all the credit? But Lee does put his own spin on the material. His film is more sensual, poetic, graceful, romantic, has a mysterious beauty, and is more delicate than is typical of the genre. His female characters are also given a bigger role than is customary and his action at times seems more like expressive dance.
Repression, restrictions, strict moral codes and self-control are an obsession with Lee. With "Hulk" we had a scientist who struggles to curb his anger, his "Taking Woodstock", "Wedding Banquet" and "Brokeback Mountain" revolved around characters repressing their homosexuality, while "Sense and Sensibility", "Lust Caution", "Ice Storm" and "Woodstock" again all hinged on either repression, free expression or the inhibiting of desire. In "Crouching's" case – the title itself refers to "one who has hidden, suppressed talents" - we have a stifled three-way love between characters called Mu Bai, Shu Lien and Jen Yu, all of whom are prohibited from desire by strict moral/social codes, feudal customs and warrior traditions.
The rejection of these codes is perhaps why the film was shunned by China (and is so popular with western women). Chinese mythology, Taoist philosophy and the hokey "mysticism" of Asian martian arts films (akin to "Star Wars'" "The Force"), all stress an esoteric mode of detachment, a form of denial characteristic of Eastern thought in which the world is seen to be illusory and detached cogitation is seen to be the path to enlightenment. Lee, in contrast, is trading in a more genteel, Western sensibility; a kind of romantic humanism where one is called to ditch Eastern stoicism and embrace the "reality" and "meaning" of human attachments in this life. This tug-of-war is epitomised by a trio of conversations located in each of the film's three acts. In the first, characters called Mu Bai and Shu Lien, who we learn have long had feelings for each another but have denied these feelings to pursue the demands of a Wudan warrior lifestyle, discuss the fact that Mu Bai, when meditating, reaches not "the bliss of enlightenment" but "a place of endless sorrow". For Mu Bai, passions cannot be extinguished and only serve to increase the pull of desire. Mu Bai's conflict – the way clinging to personal affection is contrary to his Wudan ways of detachment – can be found even in Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels, only there Lucas has some monastic ninja kid literally moan about the way his calling prevents him from losing his virginity ("Me want make sexy time but Yoda say no! Wah Wah Wah!").
The second conversation occurs at the film's midpoint, when Mu Bai and Shu Lien finally touch. "Shu Lien," he recoils, "the things we touch have no permanence. My master would say there is nothing we can hold onto in this world. Only by letting go can we truly possess what is real." Shu Lien then brushes aside his Taoism with direct, naive realism: "Not everything is an illusion. My hand is real."
It's in the third conversation that the film breaks away from your typical martial arts movie mysticism and repudiates Wudan philosophy. Here, Mu Bai is dying and Shu Lien urges him to meditate: "Free yourself of this world. Let your soul rise to eternity. Do not waste your breath on me." "I have already wasted my life," Mu Bai responds. "I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side, as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you." Contrast this with the countless marital arts movies, or even the "Star Wars" franchise, which end with the ghostly spirits of dead warriors, monks and masters hovering contently over the living. Mu Bai is given no supernatural reprieve, no higher plane of existence. He just dies. The film then ends with the recounting of a mountain legend in which a young woman must paradoxically "float away and never return" if she wishes to "return". The whole film hinges on a similar paradox: acting on a desire one desires not to have. It's the paradox of Buddhism: continually desiring to eliminate desire, whereby satiating desire is impossible and it is ultimately desire which blocks the road to desirelessness. This is contrasted with a more Western hedonism, where the hedonist attempts the cessation of desire by "giving in" to them all.
Beyond all this, the film resembles the works of King Hu, Ozu and Ichikawa, the latter two only insofar as it contrasts straitjacketed older generations, and their societal obligations, with oppositional, younger generations. The film's ending suggests that a character called Jen sacrifices her life/love so that Mu Bai and Shu Lien may finally be together.
8.5/10 – Worth two viewings.
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