Crouching Tiger, Hidden Meaning

The critique of Eastern mysticism in Ang Lee’s film

By Steven D. Greydanus

Critics across America are hailing Ang Lee’s luminous martial-arts fantasy epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as one of the best films of 2000 — many (including myself) naming it number one film of the year. Crouching Tiger is also distinguishing itself at the box office, where it has eclipsed Roberto Benigni’s 1997 triumph Life is Beautiful to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. box-office history, and has for weeks remained among the top ten box-office achievers.

Yet in China, paradoxically, Crouching Tiger is reportedly a flop. The film’s setting and locations are all Chinese; the source material is a popular early 20th-century Chinese series of pulp novels; the spectacular martial-arts choreography by Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix) is in the very best tradition of Hong Kong cinema; and the cast is all Asian and includes internationally known Hong Kong action heroes Chow Yun-Fat (Anna and the King; The Replacement Killers) and Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies, Supercop). Yet, despite all this, Chinese audiences for some reason don’t seem to be connecting with Taiwanese-born Ang Lee’s vision.

What is it about this film that’s pulling in ordinarily subtitle-phobic U.S. audiences and eliciting cheers and applause from jaded American critics and festival audiences, yet leaves the kung-fu fans of the East cold? Is this a good martial-arts movie, or not?

The answer to that last question, at least, is that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is much more than a good martial-arts movie, as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is much more than a good science-fiction movie. Crouching Tiger is the martial arts movie transfigured, remade into a thing of haunting beauty, poetic grace, and astonishing power.

On a deeper level, Crouching Tiger is not merely a product of Chinese popular culture, but a thoughtful exploration — and critical evaluation — of various aspects of Chinese classical culture. In the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings drew upon the classical heroic worldview while at the same time critiquing that tradition from the perspective of his Catholic faith, Ang Lee has here crafted a masterful synthesis of various forms of Chinese mythology and Taoist philosophy that brings a broader perspective to its subject matter than many Asian films — including some aspects of more typically Western sensibilities and ideals — and, in the end, embraces a gently romantic humanism that is more life-affirming than the esoteric way of detachment and denial characteristic of Eastern thought.

Three exchanges

The contradiction between the film’s humanist sensibilities and those of Eastern philosophy is most clearly manifested in three crucial exchanges between two of the main characters, warrior-heroes Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Taken together, these three exchanges - strategically located at the film’s beginning, midpoint, and climax — embrace the reality and meaning of human attachments in this life over against the view of Taoist mysticism that sees this world as illusory and detachment as the way to enlightenment.

Early in the film we learn that Mu Bai and Shu Lien have long had feelings for one another, but have denied those feelings to pursue the demands of a Giang Hu lifestyle (i.e., heroic martial arts life; see review for more background). In the very first scene, Mu Bai tells Shu Lien that he has just prematurely broken off a regimen of "deep meditation." She is startled: "You’re a Wudan warrior; training is everything. Why did you leave your meditation?"

Mu Bai answers: "During meditation training, I came to a place of deep silence. I was surrounded by light; time and space disappeared. It was a place my master never told me about." To Shu Lien, this sounds like enlightenment; but Mu Bai demurs. "I didn’t feel the bliss of enlightenment. Instead, I was surrounded with an endless sorrow… I felt something pulling me back… something I couldn’t leave behind."

This "something," it is soon clear, is his attachment to Shu Lien herself. Mu Bai knows that clinging to this personal affection is contrary to his Wudan way of detachment; yet in her company he finds something that eludes him in his meditations. In their second key exchange, at the film’s midpoint, Mu Bai goes so far as to take Shu Lien’s hand and press it to his cheek; yet even here he is held back by the implications of his philosophy: "Shu Lien, 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."

This Taoist orthodoxy Shu Lien counters with common-sense realism: "Mu Bai, not everything is an illusion. My hand — wasn’t that real?" And he can’t deny it: "Your hand… rough and calloused from practice… All this time I’ve never had the courage to touch it…" To repress one’s feelings, he knows, only makes them stronger; yet he says, "I don’t know what to do. I want to be with you… just like this… it gives me a sense of peace."

Most revealing of all is the climactic third exchange — though the reader is warned that the circumstances surrounding this conversation involve a crucial plot point from the film’s climax, and those who haven’t seen the film and don’t wish to be completely "spoiled" on the ending should stop reading now.

In this third scene, Mu Bai has been wounded, perhaps mortally, and Shu Lien urges him to meditate: "Free yourself of this world, as you have been taught. Let your soul rise to eternity with your last breath. Do not waste it on me."

But Mu Bai answers: "I have already wasted my whole life. I wanted to tell you with my last breath… I have always loved you. I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side, as a condemnend soul, than enter heaven without you. Yet, because of your love, I will never be a lonely spirit."

This is really a remarkable repudiation of Li Mu Bai’s Wudan philosophy. All his training, his achievements — a waste? And now he willingly turns back from the ultimate goal of his life’s pursuits for the sake of love? If this is not yet "the most excellent way" of divine love described in one of the most famous passages of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13, it’s still something more than the negative "way" of Taoist mysticism.

A faithful heart

So many questions have been raised about the very last scene of Crouching Tiger that — with a final warning to readers who haven’t yet seen it to stop reading now — a brief word on the subject may be helpful to those who have. Ang Lee has frequently been asked about the meaning of this last scene, but has so far refused comment, preferring viewers to find the meaning themselves. Since a prequel and a sequel are already planned, exactly what happened at the end of the film will presumably become clear in time; but what can be said about it now?

Standing atop Wudan Mountain, Jen (Zhang Ziyi) recalls the legend she heard in the desert from Lo (Chen Chang): "Anyone who dares to jump from the mountain, God will grant his wish. Long ago, a young man’s parents were ill, so he jumped. He didn’t die. He floated away, far away, never to return. He knew his wish had come true. If you believe, it will happen. The elders say, a faithful heart makes wishes come true."

And Jen invites Lo to make a wish. His reply: "To be in the desert, together [with you] again." And she jumps, floating down into the mists, disappearing from view.

What happened? What will happen next? If the story is true to the legend, Jen must float away and never return; yet that conflicts with Lo’s wish to be together with her again in the desert. A Zen-like paradox? Perhaps. It would be easy to imagine Jen herself making a different wish on behalf of Li Mu Bai; yet nothing in the scene suggests that this is the case, and besides, that would make her invitation to Lo a rather strange red herring, not to say a cruel taunt.

Perhaps Lo must learn that we can’t always have what we wish for; or perhaps again the wish itself can bring back the leaper, in effect "trumping" the rule that the leaper must float away forever. Another possibility is that Jen might continue to be with Lo in some spiritual way in the desert of his wanderings; or that they might be reunited after death either in another incarnation or in some spirit realm beyond.

The most likely scenario, I think, is that we will see Jen again in the sequel. What can be said now is that Jen’s leap of faith seems to bespeak a desire to have a "faithful heart." In some way it is meant to represent an attempt to atone for her past misdeeds, to somehow make things right; it may even be possible to see a christological allusion in the image of Jen suspended in space, arms outstretched at her sides. At any rate, it’s an evocative, powerful final image in a film replete with dazzling imagery and mysterious beauty.

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