All right, here we go! My first non-English film!
Anywho, the film is set in 18th century China (or thereabouts–it’s a version of China where people can fly, so I’m not sure they were super bothered about historical accuracy). Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai are professional swordfighters who have loved each other for years and won’t admit it. Jen is an aristocrat who’s engaged to be married, and isn’t thrilled about it for two reasons: she’s secretly an expert martial artist herself, and she’s in love with a desert bandit named Lo. The characters’ paths converge when Mu Bai decides to retire and give his legendary sword, the Green Destiny, to a trusted friend, only for Jen to steal the sword from under the trusted friend’s nose. As Mu Bai and Shu Lien track down the thief, they find out she may be connected to Jade Fox, the woman who killed their former master.
Much kicking ensues.
The first thing I have to talk about, regarding this movie, is the sheer number of epic fight scenes it has. If you edited together all the fight scenes in The Matrix, Serenity and the Bourne trilogy, I bet they would only last half as long as the fights in this movie. And they’d only be half as awesome. We’ve got rooftop fights, desert fights, treetop fights, restaurant fights, etc., all with just about every weapon imaginable. And it’s obvious that all of the actors are doing their own stunts. (It’s also obvious that they’re on wires whenever they “fly,” but whatever.) Also, the Green Destiny sword is seriously cool.
But this movie isn’t all rooftop fights. It also takes a lot of time to build up each character and their motivations. Even though pretty much everyone in the movie is an expert fighter, usually with mystical powers to boot, they’re all being held back by something. For Mu Bai and Shu Lien, it’s their past, which is keeping them apart even though they love each other. For Jade Fox, it’s her lack of education and her bitterness towards those martial artists who were able to get ahead of her. For Jen, it’s society’s expectations.
To me, one of the most interesting things about this story is how each female character deals with those societal expectations. In a Hollywood movie, I feel like all these characters would be hyped up as “empowered” women. After all, they spend a good chunk of the movie kicking dudes in the head and talking about how awesome their kung fu is, and in Hollywood, that’s all it takes to be a Strong Female Character. But here, despite their ultra-competence, they’re all still trapped by their gender. I got the sense that one of the reasons Shu Lien doesn’t just tell Mu Bai how she feels is that she’s afraid she would be expected to settle down and give up the whole swordfighting thing if she was married. Jade Fox’s explicit reason for turning evil was that Mu Bai’s master wouldn’t give her the same training he gave the male warriors (she never even learned to read). And Jen, despite being capable of beating up a whole restaurant full of bigger fighters, still can’t have the life she wants. Her frustration with the system, and distrust of everyone even slightly associated with it, leads her to do so many shady things that she ends up destroying her chances of freedom and being driven to suicide (maybe–the ending is pretty ambiguous, but that’s one interpretation). Basically, none of them finds a solution: retaliating against the sexist system doesn’t end well, but neither does going along with it. It’s a dilemma many women have faced throughout history, and not just in China.
Things I Had to Look Up: Subtitles make the story very easy to follow, but there were still a few China-specific references I didn’t understand right away. 1. Lots of references to “Giang Hu,” which apparently is a term for an underground community of martial artists in the wuxia genre to which this movie belongs–and/or real life gangs. 2. When Jen and her boyfriend first meet, they have a conversation where she claims to be “a real Manchurian,” and he responds that he thought she was a Han. According to Wikipedia, these are two different Chinese ethnic groups with their own languages and cultures, both of which were the “ruling class” in China at different periods of history. (I should probably have known this already, but didn’t.) 3. Finally, I had to do some research to find out why Jen and Lo’s names don’t sound even remotely like how they’re spelled in the subtitles. Turns out it’s because, in the Chinese script, their names are actually “Jiaolong” and “Xiaohu” respectively–names that refer to a type of dragon and a “little tiger.” Which is as close as I could get to figuring out what the title means.
I really enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s got solid acting, a well-written story, and tons of great action. And I feel like it has enough subtext and symbolism to make repeat viewings worthwhile. Which is probably why it’s one of the most popular Chinese movies in America. Perhaps next month I’ll go with something slightly less well-known in these parts. But right now, I really just want to learn kung fu.