Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, director Ang Lee’s return to movies in Mandarin, is set in the mystical psychedelia of the ancient Orient. Critics’ reviews have been rapturous and ridiculous they’ve heaped praise upon it the likes of which have not been heard since the Beatles released the White Album (giddy drooling is usually the special preserve of pop music reviewers).|
As far as I’m concerned, Crouching Tiger is a completely wacky film full of flying superheroes in fabulous cape-like costumes, prancing across vertical surfaces and jumping atop slanted roofs with courageous choreography, saving the world from an evil villainess with the comic-book name Jade Fox.
Reading the papers, however, one would get the impression thatCrouching Tiger is a bold martial-arts movie set in an atmosphere of magical realism, with a feminist message suggesting that even in the time of Confucius, women wielded swords, played sexual aggressors and would willingly chase a guy into the desert because he stole her comb and then fuck him into submission because, well, why not?
After the dismal failure of last year’s Ride With The Devil, a Civil War vehicle for Jewel that no one wanted to see, I can see why Ang Lee decided to try something totally different, returning to his native tongue to make a fantastically original and wildly creative movie. The lush Ching Dynasty scenery (here I must admit that I have no idea how that differs from, say, the Ming Dynasty) the flying-wire grace and the bewitchingly beautiful swordswomen seduced me. And in the deceptively dainty Jen (Zhang Zi-Yi), around whom every other character’s sexual energy seems to revolve, Ang Lee has built a gorgeously twisted anti-heroine: she walks around looking angry and bored, and in scene after scene, it seems that people don’t know whether to fuck her or kill her. In the beginning of the film, Jen keeps the governor’s mansion baffled by mischievously stealing and replacing a holy sword, not because she wants it, but just to drive them crazy. She takes down a cafeteria full of men, sends sumo-size wrestlers hurtling down the stairs, takes on a platoon of warriors camped outside the city and turns even her mentor into her nemesis. My kind of girl.
All the same, I spent a lot of Crouching Tiger musing about how this film encourages us Occidentals not to mention modern-day Mandarin-speakers to buy into an idea of ancient Asian hot blood. Of course, the Asian female as a sexual fetish has taken us to all kinds of bad places: prostitutes during the Vietnam war, Thai sex slaves, escort services that promise submissive Asian ladies. But to turn this image on its head to present Jen as a sexual predator only feeds into the inverse fantasy, the Dragon Lady. Obviously, Ang Lee’s characters are much more nuanced than any of these archaic archetypes, but they all begin with the same mythology. This is not Ang Lee’s fault; even as I write this I am saying to myself, Just let the man make his movies! He’s not responsible for cultural stereotypes!
But I believe that the frequently awed response to Crouching Tiger stems from our desire to believe in the exotic east: first Richard Chamberlain in the mini-series Shogun, and now this. It’s the same logic that would have us think that everyone in old India was practicing sex straight out of the Kama Sutra, while forgetting all about the ritual wife-burning. While there is much allusion in Crouching Tiger to the trap of marriage the bitch-goddess Jen, forcibly betrothed to some nerdy nobleman, envies the freedom of subdued single girl Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) the truth is that high-born Chinese girls had bigger problems, since most of them grew up with bound feet. And all that fencing is not possible if you’re hobbling around.
I am not suggesting that Ang Lee is obligated to make a movie about the oppressive lives of Chinese women I have still not recovered from reading about O-lan’s miserable existence when The Good Earth was assigned in ninth grade. But, in my opinion, it would have made more sense to focus on the more subtle narrative, the sad sexual tension between Yu Shu Lien and her would-be lover, the Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), who cannot marry her for reasons of honor. At least that emotional tragedy fits the time in which it’s set. The longing looks, the locked eyes, the shivering touches . . . this thwarted love is the unrealized ideal that will make the well-realized lust of Jen’s life seem tawdry and secular by comparison. Just the same, the tragic romance seems more expected because it is a cliché we all know that even swashbuckling heroes are complete idiots when it comes to love. Jen is a more compelling character but then, she too portrays a different cliché, one of wild passions hidden in the elegant, austere and hallowed halls of Peking palaces.
I prefer Ang Lee’s wholly original renderings of how we live now, as witnessed in The Wedding Banquet and The Ice Storm, to this latest flight of fancy. The same themes that are explored in Crouching Tiger essentially, the tension between liberation and tradition are more interesting when studied in a modern times. After all, these days such conflicts are supposed to be more easily resolved anything goes, right? But it is in the miserable space between what we wish for and what we are capable of that Ang Lee’s best films reside. The Wedding Banquet tells the story of a gay Chinese-American man who lives happily with his lover, but is forced to marry a female émigré to please his Chinese parents when they pay a visit to New York City from their native land. Comic misunderstandings ensue, but The Wedding Banquet is a beautiful and colorful story of the elastic nature of family relationships and the unexpected tolerance we all have for the people we love. By the movie’s end, we are given a vision of unconventional community, suggesting the possibility of home in unlikely places.
Strangely, the imaginative genius that it takes to come up with a movie like Crouching Tiger seems less awesome than the specificity and detail that is required to make a movie about ordinary people just trying to get through the day with a little bit of dignity left over at the end. In the early seventies, Robert Altman, Bob Rafaelson and the other auteurs of the American New Wave did this on a routine basis. There’s some real justification for the current complaint that most mainstream movies don’t make it unless they involve space travel or cartoon characters or exploding buildings. We rely on independent films like Ken Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me to surprise us with stories of relationships and emotions that us real people can actually imagine having ourselves.
Like Lonergan, Ang Lee is another director with the talent to tell the truth. After The Wedding Banquet, he turned his keen observation of human nature both its foolishness and its hopes for being better than all that to the completely American setting of The Ice Storm. The 1997 movie studied the sexual mores of chilly Wasps in suburban Connecticut, with the Watergate hearings playing on television as a maddening, nauseating backdrop to drinking and adultery in the afternoon. In trying to be good, everyone in the movie just ends up in bad situations. Somehow, this is so much more tragic than anything that happens between Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might be a splendid new kind of kung-fu movie, but it is, in the end, still a kung-fu movie.
Elizabeth Wurtzel and Nerve.com, Inc.