Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Love in the Time of Myth

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon has generated great word-of-mouth since its initial success out of competition in the Cannes Film Festival. For this reviewer at least, it was the most eagerly anticipated picture in the Columbia-Tri Star “Silk Screen” series. Great things were expected of arthouse director Ang Lee’s first martial arts picture, clearly signifying an attempt by the Taiwan-born director to reach back to his cinematic roots. To every Chinese director, the martial arts picture is a genre akin to the Western or the Epic – the type of picture that every director would want to do at least once in their careers. Like the Western or the Epic, the martial arts genre is embedded in myth, but more so than its counterparts, it conjures up a realm so other-worldly that it brims over with Magical Lantern effects, its protagonists empowered with preternatural abilities to harness their internal energy so as to levitate and fly from rooftop to rooftop in fairy-like fashion. Indeed, the world of the martial arts is a fairyland, regulated by a chivalric code of arcane brevity, compelling its dramatis personae to do battle on a moral plane dictated by a simple, dualistic principle of Dao and Mo (which may be translated as “good” and “evil”, though the original concepts in Chinese are not without metaphysical underpinnings). The conflict is so well defined that the genre appears to operate on the barest level. A filmmaker working in the genre often has room for little else than the stylization and cinematic expression of various forms of combat. Infractions from the standard can only invite misinterpretation at best, catastrophe at worst. Thus, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon comes loaded with significant cultural and genre baggage. It consciously alludes to the mythical wuxia format of the genre, indicating the tradition of martial arts (wu) complemented by chivalry (xia). From the outset, the picture signals a definite genre tradition, and from it flows hommages to the form, to old masters, and to the conventions and themes of wuxia.

However, Ang Lee is not content with simply following convention. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon offers an induction into the genre for the new millennium. As the picture begins, it soon becomes clear that Lee is offering more than a mere recounting of generic forms. To begin with, Ang Lee has conceived a martial arts picture as a mythical romance. In point of fact, he has invoked the romantic tradition in martial arts literature, by using as his source the novels of Wang Dulu (1909-1977), first published in serialized form in the ’40s. Wang wrote stories featuring star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the world of martial arts, with the narratives ending inexorably in tragedy interspersed by meandering accounts of swashbuckling adventure. Wang is now recognized as a master of the romantic tradition, his novels belonging to the category of what Chinese critics call yan qing (amorous love) or xia qing (knights-errant in love). The screenplay, originally written in English by American James Schamus (and then translated and revised into Chinese by two Chinese scriptwriters from Taiwan, with their work being then re-translated back into English) is essentially a bowdlerized version of the original episodic novel, pinning it down to the interactions of a quadrangular relationship (the back stories of the four characters were told through four separate novels that were loose sequels of each other).

The central character is Jen, a gentrified young woman (played by Zhang Ziyi, of The Road Home fame) whose name in Chinese, Yu Jiaolong, carries the words for “Jade Dragon” (inexplicably, the English subtitles render her name as “Jen”, thus, for the purposes of this review, to avoid confusion, she will henceforth be so referred). Jen has secretly acquired the skills and powers of a martial artist of the Wudang school, passed on to her by her governess, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), in reality a renegade member of the school, who had killed her master for refusing to teach her the secrets of Wudang because of her sex. Jen is headstrong and restless, ambivalent about being tied down to an arranged marriage, and yearns for the romance and adventure of the Never Never Land that writers call “Jianghu” (literally “rivers and lakes”, rendered incorrectly as “Gianghu” in the subtitles, which unfortunately, is full of Dan Quayle-like spelling misdemeanours, fecklessly abusing the internationally-recognized standard pinyin system of transliteration and spelling of Chinese names and terminology; note also the spelling for Wudang, which is rendered “Wudan” in the subtitles). Partly out of her wish to delve into the world of the Jianghu, Jen steals the precious sword of the legendary swordsman-hero Li Mubai (played by Chow Yun-fat). This act of calculated desperation turns the wheel of tragic fate, firstly bringing about a series of confrontations between Jen and Li Mubai as well as between Jen and Yu Shu Lien (played by Michelle Yeoh). The older protagonists attempt to harness the talents of the young swordswoman and steer her into becoming a genuine heroine worthy of the Wudang, only to achieve the aim at a high personal cost. Li Mubai and Yu Shu Lien are unrequited lovers who seek also to restore Jen to her lover, Lo (played by Chang Chen), the handsome desert bandit.

In the Chinese script, Lo’s name is actually Luo Xiaohu, which signifies “Little Tiger”. Thus, the Chinese literary inflections of these two characters’ names – Jen’s “Jade Dragon” and Lo’s “Little Tiger” – point to the meaning of the title. As the “crouching tiger”, Lo is an almost passive stranger infatuated with Jen – their affair unfolding via a flashback sequence set in the desert of Xinjiang: the latter chases after the young bandit following a raid on Jen’s caravan, to retrieve a comb-keepsake which had been snatched away from her by the bandit. Through pursuit and counter-pursuit, Jen eventually falls for the young man, attracted as much to his libertarian lifestyle as to his physical presence. In the Beijing setting where much of the plot unfolds, the “crouching tiger” awaits his opportunity to encounter Jen’s “hidden dragon”, who is soon to be married. He must convince her to elope with him. Weaving through this plotline is the theme of Jen’s wanderlust for the Jianghu and her subsequent stealth of Li Mubai’s sword.

A Time to Love, A Time to Fight

The structure of the film is founded on the central romance of the two young characters, while the two secondary characters, played by Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, provide the dramatic stimulus for martial arts action. A further sub-plot gives Li Mubai a rationale for revenge and it turns out that Jen’s governess, Jade Fox, is the real villain on whom Li must exact his revenge. (The revenge motif is recurrent in literature, and in cinema, as a potboiling tradition.) While the plot and the relationships capture the romantic gist of Wang Dulu’s original, in this cinematic instance, romance and martial arts make for uneasy bedfellows. The notion of a romantic martial arts picture, for better or worse, results in a conflict of styles. Ang Lee handles the non-action scenes with a characteristic restraint that has the effect of mitigating the genre’s penchant for high-octane delivery. Lee is unable or reluctant to hit the high notes of his romantic vision. His pedestrian, somewhat humourless manner stands in contrast to the intoxicating choreography of Yuen Wo-ping’s action setpieces.

In the Chinese cinema, the martial arts genre has all along been focused on the principle of heroism and the cinematic prerogative of reifying myth and fantasy. Unlike literature, the cinema has devoted itself, in the hands of its best exponents, to perpetuating the heroic stereotype, exploring the nature of heroism with character-studies built around the tenet of yi and its attendant themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. This has largely persisted through the development of the genre in Hong Kong cinema, and all major directors have stuck to such a convention. Consequently, they have had much less scope to explore the quality of qing (love, or emotion). Ang Lee’s breakthrough, if it may be called that, is to qualify martial arts action with precisely this quality. The problem really is that he has not grasped the quality of heroism and fully integrated it with his romantic premise. The heroic prototype is considerably watered down and herein lies the crux of the problem. The best that can be said is that the director has reconfigurated the conventions, but at what price?

For all its emphasis on qing, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon also invokes the essence of heroism, which is tragic by implication. In resorting to violence, male or female knights-errant seek to justify their existences on predestined notions of chivalry, gallantry and other heroic deeds. The Dao-Mo struggle confers the virtue of simple choice, and the best martial arts pictures (and martial arts novels) never muddle this choice. In this way, the ferocity of combat acquires substance. However, the characters of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are clearly not the standard heroes of genre convention even though the roles played by Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh do invoke them. Zhang Ziyi’s “Hidden Dragon” is an ambivalent character – Ang Lee has referred to her as being “in some ways the villain of the movie”. The protagonists are their own mutual antagonists for much of the time in the movie. In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the ferocity of the fight between Jen and Shu Lien (where the latter uses a variety of weapons against the stolen sword wielded by the former) seems hardly justified by the nature of their quarrel or the substance of their friendship based on sworn sisterhood according to the precept of yi. Similarly, Jen’s confrontation with Li Mubai (their aerial combat in the bamboo grove) is puzzling at best – all the more so when we subject their conflict to the level of the Dao-Mo struggle. Jen is neither a typical villain nor a persona of heroic proportions in the conventional sense of chivalry inherent in the notion of wuxia. Such scenes work on the level of stylization and pure martial arts action, and may be appreciated wholly out of context, but the essence of heroism remains elusive.

The Hero’s Destiny

We may define “the essence of heroism” as the drama of mortal men who fight and die for a worthwhile cause, attaining epiphany in death. Death is a necessary concomitant to violence, which becomes worthwhile when marked by gestures of heroism. The heroic gesture is imperative to any genre as packed with physical action and myth as the martial arts genre is. Because violence entails death, heroes of action movies redeem their destinies through the heroic gesture, becoming tragic icons in the process (cf. the Westerns of Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, or Sergio Leone (1)). Even where the heroes possess supernatural abilities, they retain the element of tragic mortality as they are constantly reminded of the saying, “Where the Dao is one feet tall, the Mo is ten feet taller” (words that ring with the tones of an epitaph for countless heroes in martial arts epics and becomes a recurrent theme (2) – in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, it may serve as an epitaph for Li Mubai who achieves tragic status as a character, but I maintain that there is no epiphany because of the lack of a heroic gesture).

Of all the action directors, only the late King Hu (1931-1997) has managed to capture the real essence of heroism, and then only in one or two of his wuxia pictures (a cycle that includes Come Drink With Me [1966], Dragon Inn [1968], A Touch of Zen [1971], The Fate of Lee Khan [1973], The Valiant Ones [1975]). Hu delivers laconic characterizations of heroes as characters who are right in the midst of action. At the same time, they are aesthetic stereotypes who perform after the fashion of ballet or music. His pictures are sharply cut and choreographed tableaus of action configurated to the performing styles of Beijing Opera and the rhythm and beat of its orchestral scores. The action setpieces in Hu’s films work as pure expressions of film style constructed on principles of montage and mise en scène, and are exhilarating moments of cinematic experience.

Hu knew the limitations of the genre and, consequently, worked well within them. The main limitation, as Hu saw it, was the imperative of plot construction. Essentially, Hu transcended the soap opera conventions of martial arts literature that was largely mandated by the practice of serialized publishing. One of his filmmaking rules-of-thumb was expressed to me during an interview in the early ’80s: “If the plot becomes involved, one will have to spend more time on explanation and accountability, and less time on delivery and expression of style.” Contemporary audiences used to Hollywood-style expositions of dramatic plot in TV and the cinema will find it difficult to perceive the meaning of the master’s pronouncement, particularly when the director is forgotten and the films themselves are not so easily accessible. (Needless to say, King Hu needs to be reintroduced to new generations of film fans and what better time to mount retrospectives than in the wake of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.) Though Hu’s pictures are not themselves devoid of plot, they are particularly sparse even by the standards of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Audiences watching Hu’s movies are thoroughly engaged in the pleasure and spectacle of martial arts. Even so, Hu had a Zen-influenced metaphysical side which delivered something of a philosophy of action as well as a terse, invigorating style marked by touches of idiosyncratic humour.

Hu’s brand of heroism was usually conceived as allegories of China’s modern tragedy – its burden of a tyrannical past. Thus, Hu’s heroic characters fight and die for historical-nationalist causes that entail great sacrifice, conveying the message that individual heroic action is necessary when the state itself has lost its moral path. There was clearly a didactic side to King Hu but his films have been highly influential. They are in fact iconographic to the genre, and the truth of the matter is that Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon has factored in its own inevitable tribute to the master. There are obvious allusions, such as the tavern scene where Jen fields off against a phalanx of tough guys with flamboyant nicknames (paying homage to Hu’s cycle of “inn films”, so called because their main settings were traditional Chinese inns) and the bamboo grove sequence where Li Mubai engages Jen in their aerial combat (a magisterial tribute to the groundbreaking “bamboo forest” sequence in Hu’s A Touch of Zen).

The morphological influence of King Hu is still better detected in the central roles given to the female characters. It was Hu who practically reinvented the character of the female fighter in the wuxia tradition with his introduction of the “lady knight-errant” (or xia nü) in Come Drink With Me, his first wuxia picture. In that film, his leading lady was Cheng Pei-pei (or Zheng Peipei, in the pinyin form), who appears as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The character of Jade Fox, though a villain, as well as the ambiguous Jen and the more stereotypical Shu Lien, are all emblematic of Hu’s universe where female fighters are the equals of or even superior to their male counterparts. Jen and Shu Lien recall the characters played by Shangguan Lingfeng (in Dragon Inn) and Xu Feng (in A Touch of Zen and The Valiant Ones). Hu devoted one of his pictures, The Fate of Lee Khan, to a bevy of female knights-errant, and a cool female villain (played by the director’s then prototype-heroine Xu Feng, who was obviously cast against type but still deployed elements of her heroic lady-knight persona).

In the final analysis, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon relies as much on “delivery and expression of style” in its own action sequences so as to rise above its own limitations of romantic plot accountability. The rooftop flying scenes, the person-to-person combat with swords or fists, the tavern sequence, the aerial combat atop the bamboo grove, are all marvellously done and take on an independent stream-of-aesthetic-consciousness. They are magical cinematic moments that underline the forms of the genre. But the nature of the genre being heroic leaves some substance to be desired. While Ang Lee has woven a tribute to King Hu that is at times actually quite moving (the bamboo grove sequence is the most elegiac tribute to Hu that has yet been conceived so far), he has essentially failed to grasp the substance of the master – Hu’s substance always alluding to the heroic principle as the tragic manifestation of chivalric violence.


  1. In some major Westerns, such as Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie (1955) and Man of the West (1958), the heroes, played respectively by James Stewart and Gary Cooper, may not necessarily die at the climax. It is only enough that they be touched by death for them to acquire the status of the tragic hero.
  2. The phrase is comparable in essence to the epigrammatic “There ain’t a bull that couldn’t be rode, there ain’t a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed”, from Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952). The phrase becomes an epitaph for the bronco-rider hero, played by Robert Mitchum, which is spoken as he lies dying at the end (substituting “bronc” for “bull”), making him another lasting prototype of the tragic hero.

About The Author

Stephen Teo's latest book Wong Kar-wai is published by the British Film Institute. He is the author of Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997) and is currently writing Johnnie Gets His Gun: The Action Films of Johnnie To, for the Hong Kong University Press.