Friday, November 05, 2010

Off a Bridge, Into the Mist


"It must be exciting to be a fighter, to be totally free." 

Stuck in a hotel room out of town, without a laptop and any internet access, I ended  up watching a  documentary on cable entitled The Art of Action: Martial Arts in Motion Picture. Filmed in 2002, the said documentary provided a general overview of the martial arts genre-- tracing its origins and influence  back to the Peking Opera, citing iconic figures and films of note, showcasing clips of classic and modern movies, along with various interviews of directors and artists.

At that time, the genre was at the height of its popularity, it figured prominently in Hollywood movies, and slowly found itself a new audience, one used to the high-octane action and the colorful frenzy offered by MTV. Jacky Chan was on his way into becoming a household name in the West, wire-fu was in vogue and of course,  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, being one of the most celebrated films from the East, became a frequently discussed topic.

Impressing both critics and audiences worldwide, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, represented the best of Chinese cinema, and therefore it was no surprise that the documentary singled out this movie for its breathtaking images, gravity-defying fight sequences and most of all, its tragic love story. The movie in itself might not have had the same success and recognition it enjoyed in the United States as in its native country, but Ang Lee's first entry into the wuxia genre certainly made quite an impression on the industry and the  general viewing public. Everyone had their own take on the film and basically everyone had their own personal reason for loving [or hating] it. And while Chinese audiences initially shunned the overly romanticized elements of it and treated the martial arts sequences as standard fare for such films, the fact that it took home an Oscar and became an acclaimed box office hit abroad made a lot of people sit up and take notice.

Director Tsui Hark attributed the film's success to its story and how the issues confronting its characters, specifically that of a rebellious teen, remain relevant in contemporary society; Donnie Yen, on the other hand, effusively praised the poetry of specific scenes; critics and film analysts adjudged it to be a prime example of how arthouse cinema successfully crossed over to mainstream; and just about any martial artist/actor/stunt man harped on Yuen Woo-Ping's unparalleled skill in choreographing fight scenes that matched a  film's aesthetic.

"Whatever path you decide to take in this life... be true to yourself."  

There's certainly much to appreciate about this movie, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon appealed to everyone's sensibilities, providing a potent mix of action, romance, political intrigue, and social commentary in one beautiful period piece. To some, it's a love story of epic proportions, to others it's a carefully crafted tale about three women's struggle for identity and honor in a male-dominated society steep with stifling conventions and outmoded traditions. Within a decade of its release, numerous interpretations have been made regarding the movie's underlying theme(s), fans and netizens have come up with their own theories, but very few really focused on tying everything up with the movie's ending.

Artistically rendered with care to the very last frame, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon admittedly gives way to a bittersweet ending-- Jen (Zhang Ziyi) tells Lo (Chang Chen) to recall the legend that he told her in the desert about how a faithful heart makes wishes come true. She then asks him to make a wish before slowly falling off the bridge of Wudan, descending into the mist; in calm surrender, in atonement for her sins. It  seemed like a fitting end to a tempestuous maiden who deprived two people of a chance at happiness but speculation soon surfaced as to whether or not the legend in the film held special meaning... was it merely a device inherent to the genre or was there actually a message behind it?

So Jen gracefully disappears into the mist on account of a legend, with the intention to right past misdeeds, leaving the audience wondering about the reason behind her actions and Shu Lien's reminder, "to thine own self be true".

Watching the documentary made me think about this part of the film, particularly when Ang Lee only gave a statement about how it was a dream of his to film a female character drift serenely into the clouds, without so much as a word on what he meant by giving Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such an ending. I've read quite a few reviews over the past years and have encountered countless musings on the movie's source material, its connection to Eastern philosophy and how characters' names corresponded to the title of the movie, but none of them captured my imagination as Matthew Levine's thought-provoking article in Bright Lights Film Journal-- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Art Film Hidden Inside the Chop-Socky Flick -- which argued for the presence of strong feminist themes with the fearless postulate that Jen, in all humility, did not only seek redemption by throwing herself over that bridge; she also wished with all heart to be reborn, to be free. When I first read this article, I couldn't believe how much this single line of thought changed the way I viewed this movie. It shifted my attention away from Li Mubai and Shu Lien's love story and permanently drew  my thoughts toward Jen and her dilemma; and there it stayed indefinitely. Five years later, I'd still catch myself thinking about Levine's thesis, others might have reservations about it, but every time I see a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clip, I can't help but feel sad for Jen and a part of me would always wonder whether she got her wish.


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Special thanks goes to patrick at http://psdragonfly.livejournal.com/18661.html for the beautiful screencaps that accompany this entry.  

9 comments:

  1. First off, I love your title. Love it! XD

    Secondly, Crouching Tiger is one of my fave wuxia films (although it ain't like I've seen a LOT, but still), right up there with Zhang Zimou's Hero, and I'm so happy you revisited this movie with your lovely writeup. (Can you believe it's been a full decade since Crouching Tiger came out? Just shows what a classic Ang Lee's epic is.)

    I love Crouching Tiger for the very things you pointed out -- the cinematography and art direction, the doomed romance, the awesome wire fu and swordplay. I also liked the contrast between the two sets of lovers. I guess for this same reason I was never fully invested in Dark Cloud and Jen, but was completely enamored with Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien's complex relationship -- with the time-honored friendship, the maturity and restraint, the selfless commitment to the welfare of the other one. In short, things we never see in Jen and her bandit's tempestuous love affair. (Sorry, but Dark Cloud annoyed the living daylights out of me. Every time he opened his mouth to say something I was just like, whatevs+rolleyes+facepalm.)

    But Crouching Tiger's ending, which you dissected and cross-referenced beautifully in this post, was indeed one of the saddest, most haunting movie finales I've ever come across. What sublime tragedy! -- although IMO the tragedy wasn't that Jen and Lo could never be together, but rather that by killing herself, Jen missed out on the only way to truly atone for all her sins - which was to keep on living, and devote the rest of her years to righting her wrongs.

    Still, the article you linked certainly gave a profoundly interesting take on what the ending meant. Great analysis right there on the gender philosophy of the film. I never read that deeply into the story, but learning about a different perspective makes the whole cosmos of Crouching Tiger all the richer, ne? ^^;;

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  2. I second E.G. re the title!!! LOVE :))

    Just to ruffle the feathers here, I am one of those Chinese people who shunned the movie^^;;;

    I did like CTHD but I don't think it's as great as some other wuxia stuff I've seen. I grew up watching many, many wuixia series & movies from Hong Kong (I used to plait my hair wuixia style as a little girl lol) so swordsplay & flying wasn't new to me at all. In fact, although I am a huge fan of Yuen Wo Ping's martial arts choreography & agree that there were some awesome fight sequences in the film, I did find some of the wirework action in CTHD a little too obvious. There's no denying though that the film was gorgeously shot <3

    I loved the Ying & Yang mention in the article you linked but I think there may have been too much Freudian meaning given to the part of the sword. From my understanding, in wuxia/martial arts world, the ownership of the sword carries weight regardless of whether the owner is a man or woman. It's simply about the sword being in the hands of the person whom it was meant to be given to :)

    Lastly, I want to say that I thought Chow Yun Fat was superb in this! And I've never seen Michelle Yeoh deliver such a poignant performance. And! This was one (super) rare occasion where I actually liked Zhang Zi Yi lol

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  3. OMG I can't believe this! As soon as I finished posting this comment, I switched to the TV & Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is on our local world movies channel.

    I'm thinking it wants me to give it another chance lol

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  4. @ E.G.
    I was never fully invested in Dark Cloud and Jen, but was completely enamored with Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien's complex relationship -- with the time-honored friendship, the maturity and restraint, the selfless commitment to the welfare of the other one.

    I can totally relate. In watching CTHD, what really stayed with me was Li Mubai and Shu Lien's love story. As you said, it was so mature, tempered, and selfless; the kind of stuff you see in epic romances, the type that would make your heart ache, especially when you consider how it remained unconsummated. In contrast, Jen and Lo's relationship came off more as a frilly romance between a spoiled brat and an unkempt rebel. I remember walking out of the theater thinking that everything was Jen's fault and how her actions ruined the lives of two people, so it's really interesting how reading about other people's thoughts and opinions can change one's attitude towards a film.

    I'm not really all sold on the symbolism (e.g. the sword and the comb) but I was mighty tickled by Levine's conclusion that Jen wished to be reborn as a man. I guess she really would have been better off born as a man. What I found so intriguing about it is that this decision of hers to go off a bridge came nn the heels of Shu Lien's advice for her to be true to herself-- which to me, meant a certain realization on her part that she can't go back to the way things were and ironically, it also came with the understanding that she can't go forward either, seeing how things are in their world. She can't go back home to her husband, can't run away with Lo (it may just be an issue of honor and how she thinks she's not worthy of being happy after what she's done) but the idea of wanting more from this life, just gave the movie a whole new dimension.

    (Sorry, but Dark Cloud annoyed the living daylights out of me. Every time he opened his mouth to say something I was just like, whatevs+rolleyes+facepalm.)

    Lol, I wonder if you would have found it as annoying if Takeshi Kaneshiro played the part. Read somewhere that he was offered the role but turned it down.^^

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  5. @ jicks

    I did like CTHD but I don't think it's as great as some other wuxia stuff I've seen.

    True, that's why CTHD has been accused of dressing up a mainstream, commonplace martial arts movie into an art film. I think what makes it so highly rated is that it's the first movie to come out of East Asia that appealed to Western sensibilities. I agree that there's probably a number of other films that featured better wirework, but to others, who are not used to seeing it, CTHD just knocked their socks off with the whole-- chase sequence on the roof, whizzing through bamboo trees, etc. Best fight sequence for me would still have to be that final showdown between Shu Lien and Jen.

    It's simply about the sword being in the hands of the person whom it was meant to be given to :)

    Lol, yeah. Like I mentioned earlier, not all that sold on Levine's explanation re the sword and the comb-- I think Jen's fixation with it is just part of her desire to lead a life of adventure, to prove that she's a competent fighter and therefore worthy of such a weapon.

    I really liked Chow Yun Fat in this, too. Can't imagine how different it would all be, had Jet Li gotten the role. And Michelle Yeoh was really remarkable in it, right? She's still my favorite Bond girl to date.

    OMG I can't believe this! As soon as I finished posting this comment, I switched to the TV & Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is on our local world movies channel.

    Actually had the same problem. It seemed like every time I switched on the tv, I'd see this movie playing. So I figured, might as well get it over and done with by writing about it. ^^

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  6. Re Shu Lien & Jen Yu fight scene- I read somewhere that at the time the film aired at Cannes, the audience erupted into a huge cheer after that scene. I would have to agree, it was absolutely rocking. Props out to ZiYi for doing martial arts training for the role, too.

    I thought Michelle was a hot Bond Girl too! But... while I admire her & think she's great, I wouldn't say she is one of my favourite Asian actresses though. Not that their styles are similar but I am much more of a Maggie Cheung fan through & through xDD

    I'm here to confess, after a rewatching of CTHD, I am now... less against it lol (well, I wasn't ever really against it per se) Your review helped alot too :) I have to say I definitely looked at the role of Jen in a hellotta different way. While the concept of her wishing to be reborn as a man is very intriguing, I feel like this was the moment she released her pride & would be accepting of whatever her destiny would hold for her in her next life. No matter what, she would live with love & honor.

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  7. @ zooey

    zomg Takeshi shoulda-woulda-coulda been Dark Cloud??? NOW we're talkin'!!! But the role was too small for him, if you think about it. (Maybe he did House of Flying Daggers with Zhang Ziyi to make up for things? XP)

    Btw when Crouching Tiger was shown here it was dubbed in English but the dubbing was SO GOOD that I was completely fooled the whole time watching; I seriously thought the original audio was English, lulz. I only realized it wasn't so the following year when I caught the movie (Chinese audio w/ Eng. subs) on HBO. XD

    @ jicks

    I defer to your more discriminate, wuxia-honed judgment! :D Like zooey said, Crouching Tiger was the first big-budget wuxia that really wowed Western audiences in such a long time. Before Crouching Tiger came out I wasn't too familiar with wuxia beyond the horrendously dubbed Saturday morning costume dramas, so the Ang Lee film totally blew my mind. :-)

    Lol, Jet Li as Li Mu Bai? I loved him as Nameless in Hero, but... Chow Yun Fat has that serene, unshakable strength that makes you feel that he's gonna make everything all right no matter how scary things can get. XD

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  8. The Art of Action: Martial Arts in Motion Picture im addicted to it too.. came across your blog while searching photos about The Art of Action. nice blog you own =]

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  9. @ maryqueen - Thanks for dropping by. :)

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