Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) are modern additions to the old Chinese tradition of wuxia martial arts cinema. Although both of these films play with genre conventions, they generally satisfy the major expectations of the wuxia genre including a dynastic setting, epic stories, warrior characters motivated by vengeance, and beautifully choreographed (often airborne) fight scenes that eschew realism for a stylized aesthetic. However, despite these surface similarities, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are actually very different films, especially in their treatment of issues of renunciation and transcendence of (or escape from) different societal systems or mentalities, such as the warrior’s code of honor.
This reading provokes a number of questions: can the cinematography and mise en scène of these films, particularly the image of the flying warrior, be interpreted as a metaphor/symbol for the issues of renunciation and transcendence that the characters face in the narratives of the films? If so, does this act of flying simultaneously convey different forms of transcendence/escape or perhaps an inability to ‘ground’ oneself? What is being transcended or renounced in these films and why? Finally, can we use the themes of transcendence and flight to explore the incredible international success of these films and their effect on the global awareness of Chinese cinema?
The act of flying plays an important role in most of the fight scenes in Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. On the surface, flight seems to be a choreographic style used to create a certain aesthetic feel as well as a powerful, otherworldly combat technique used to gain an advantage over one’s enemy and emphasize a fighter’s martial arts mastery. However, flight may also have philosophical, thematic and symbolic resonance. In the first segment of Hero, one of these fights involves a duel between the two swordswomen, Flying Snow and Moon, in a forest of yellow leaves. Both characters wear bright red robes, symbolizing their impassioned and violent state of mind. Flying Snow has just murdered Broken Sword, her lover and Moon’s master, in a fit of rage. Therefore, Moon wants revenge against Flying Snow and attacks her even though Flying Snow does not want to fight. For most of the scene, Flying Snow remains on the defensive and on the ground. She only flies once near the beginning of the scene to dodge Moon’s swords. While Flying Snow remains incredibly calm, Moon shrieks in rage as she attempts various airborne strikes on Flying Snow. Ultimately, her wild and furious fighting style leads to her death.
The fight choreography in this scene seems to use the act of flying as a visual representation of the powerful emotions, such as hatred and the overwhelming desire for vengeance, which can blind the swordfighter to higher reasoning. Flying often evokes a sense of freedom, but here it might actually be used to symbolize a form of entrapment. Although Moon can apparently transcend gravity, she is bound to her body and cannot control her rage. Therefore, she cannot see the foolishness of fighting Flying Snow who is clearly much above her skill level. In addition, Moon is unable to break free of the traditional warrior’s code of honor, under which she is obligated to avenge her master. Furthermore, the act of flying itself is portrayed as ethereal, otherworldly, and weightless. Thus, perhaps we can interpret the wuxia warrior’s airborne fighting style as indicative of the warrior’s partial disconnect from reality or inability to perceive the bigger picture beyond his/her own lesser quarrels. These swordfighters may literally have their heads in the clouds. Although the assassins should be pursuing their goal of killing the king of Qin, they are too busy fighting amongst themselves.
Nevertheless, this reading may need to be adjusted to accommodate the revelation that the first section of the film was a lie. In fact, only the final section of the film is ultimately acknowledged as “true”. In this final story, Moon and Flying Snow have somewhat reversed their roles. Although Moon is still very protective of her master, Flying Snow is now the fiercely vengeful one. In fact, Flying Snow is almost entirely motivated by her desire to assassinate the king of Qin, who killed her father, and she never allows herself to become distracted from this goal. Therefore, an alternate reading of the yellow forest scene might suggest that Moon’s desire to avenge her master is an echo of Flying Snow’s desire to avenge her father. Since Moon, the avenger, is the one who is killed, the sequence might imply that vengeance and violent solutions in general are foolish and essentially unproductive. When viewed in this light, the weightless, otherworldly quality of air combat throughout the film could represent Flying Snow’s inability and refusal to transcend her grudge and embrace the more “grounded” higher ideal of a unified, peaceful China, which her nemesis represents. Furthermore, it is very appropriate that even her name, Flying Snow, refers to this act of flight.
Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon deal differently with the themes of renunciation and transcendence. Whereas Broken Sword and Nameless in Hero ultimately renounce violence in the interest of a higher ideal, Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is unable to give up his sword and put aside his vendetta against Jade Fox. Barry and Farquhar quote Zhang Yimou, “I take the genre in a new direction. In my story the goal is the negation of violence. The characters are motivated by their desire to end the war. For real martial arts masters, true heroes, the heart is far more important than the sword.” (Berry and Farquhar, 167)
Thus, Zhang Yimou wanted to reinvent the martial arts genre by moving away from the theme of vengeance. In Hero, this transcendence of violence is actually symbolized in a number of fight scenes, which display a fusion of wu and wen images. In the first fight scene of the film, Nameless confronts the assassin Sky in a chess house. According to Kam Louie, “wen-wu translates as literary-martial, and refers to the dichotomy between the mental and the physical” and “wen has always been perceived as more elite than wu.” (Louie, 138) This dichotomy is apparent in the first scene, which prominently features images of culture (wen) such as chessboards and a lute. Furthermore, although the fighters do engage in physical violence, a large part of the duel is conducted in their minds, illustrating their intense mental discipline.
The next action scene even more clearly emphasizes the power of culture over violence. In this scene, the Qin army is firing arrows at a calligraphy school. The calligraphy students begin to panic but the teacher tells them that the arrows of Qin can never annihilate the written word. In an act of defiance, he goes to his chair and writes calligraphy as arrows fly around him. His students follow his example and return to their seats. This is an extraordinary act of discipline and illustration of the power of the mind to transcend the body. At this moment, Nameless and Flying Snow fly up to the roof and begin repelling the arrows. They are purely defending the school and never attack the Qin soldiers. The defense is intercut with shots of the students practicing calligraphy and Broken Sword painting the character “sword” on a scroll. Eventually, the Qin army retreats. Thus, peaceful calligraphy (wen) is ultimately victorious over the violence of the arrows (wu) without the shedding of the enemy’s blood.
In the second revision of the story, a fight scene between Nameless and Broken Sword over a tranquil lake actually divorces violence from bloodshed and transforms it into a ceremonial ritual. This scene is unique because neither man wants to hurt the other and instead, the duel is conducted to honor Flying Snow, who has sacrificed her life to the cause of assassinating the king of Qin. In this version of the story, Nameless killed Flying Snow to get closer to the king of Qin. Thus, the non-lethal combat is actually a way around the warrior’s code, which would have compelled Broken Sword to avenge his lover’s death in order to preserve her honor. This scene is dominated by peaceful images of nature such as the beautiful lake and colorful mountains in the distance. The music in the scene is also incredibly soothing and not typical of a fight scene. Also, unlike the other combat scenes which used quick cutting and intense close ups, this scene is characterized by a slower editing pace and punctuated by many long shots of the two men dwarfed by the landscape.
The tranquility of this scene and the focus on nature seems to evoke a Taoist aesthetic. In addition, the fighting itself has a very elegant, calm, and ballet-like feeling. The inclusion of all of these peaceful elements within a scene of combat might symbolize the existence of alternatives to bloodshed and vengeance-fueled violence. In fact, the renunciation of violence is made explicit near the end of the scene when Broken Sword turns his back to Nameless and drops his sword to wipe water off of Flying Snow’s face. Meanwhile, Nameless flies toward Broken Sword with his sword drawn, ready to strike. When Broken Sword does not turn around, Nameless diverts his strike at the last moment and flips backwards into the water. This rejection of violence might represent and foreshadow Broken Sword’s and Nameless’ ultimate refusal to go through with the assassination attempt on the king of Qin as well as their desire for peace.
However, Nameless does not give up his mission easily. Later in the film, when Broken Sword is attempting to convince Nameless not to assassinate the king of Qin, he writes the character “tianxia” (meaning “all under the sky”) in the sands of the desert. Here, he is trying to counter violence (wu) with the written word (wen) symbolizing the dream of a unified and peaceful China. However, Nameless initially rejects his advice. Another piece of Broken Sword’s calligraphy ultimately sways his decision to spare the king.
At the end of the film, the king prepares himself for the assassination and turns his back to Nameless, facing Broken Sword’s calligraphy. After staring at the calligraphy, the king suddenly realizes that the character depicted on the scroll reveals Broken Sword’s greatest ideal. The king says, “the ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains.” At this moment, Nameless flies toward the king with his sword drawn, however he shoves the hilt into the king’s back rather than the blade, thus repeating the aborted strike from the lake scene. Nameless tells the king, “a dead man begs you never to forget the ultimate ideal for a warrior is to lay down his sword” and this dialogue is followed immediately by a slow motion shot of his sword hitting the ground. Thus, the power of the written word has once again triumphed over violence and Nameless aborts his mission out of the hope for a lasting peace. In addition, Nameless’ ability to renounce his bloody mission and sacrifice himself for a higher purpose is yet another example of the power of the mind (forward thinking) to transcend the materiality of the body. This surrender is portrayed as an extremely noble virtue and enlightened decision, rather than as a sign of weakness.
If Hero is a film about the possibility of renouncing violence, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is about its impossibility. The warriors Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien are bound to the obligations and codes of the world of martial arts (jianghu) and thus must subordinate everything to their mission. Jen is their opposite —-an uncontrollable warrior who rejects all traditional societal systems of control in her quest for ultimate freedom. The first fight scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon begins when Jen steals the Green Destiny Sword for fun. She briefly fights Bo, Sir Te’s head servant, before springing to the roof. At this point, Shu Lien leaps to the roof after her and chases her over the rooftops, flying from building to building. In this action sequence, the cinematography becomes markedly different from the fairly slow, static shot/reverse shot structure that has dominated the film up until this point. Although there is still a use of shot/reverse shot (primarily to show punches and kicks), the editing is now very fast and the camera has become much more mobile and frantic. In fact, in a number of shots, the camera takes on an almost hand held quality, jerking up or down to show the emergence of one of the fighters. For example, in one shot, the camera shows Shu Lien enter a building, then quickly pans up to show Jen leaping over the roof. In another shot, the camera seems to jump and fly from building to building following the fighters. This sudden liberation of the camera occurs in most of the action scenes in the film and serves to create a sense of excitement and momentum. In addition, it mirrors the flight of the characters and their gravity-defying freedom of motion. Thus, the camera actively participates along with the characters in the transcendence of the rules of the natural world. However, the film complicates the notion that the warriors’ freedom, symbolized by this act of flight, is something to be desired.
Unlike Jen who seems totally free and is even willing to steal a great warrior’s sword “for fun”, Shu Lien is tied to a warrior’s code of honor. This code compels her to retrieve the Green Destiny sword in order to preserve the honor of her lover, Li Mu Bai. This sword is an ancient weapon passed down through generations of swordsmen, and thus represents a powerful warrior tradition. Furthermore, in the opening scene of the movie, this sword is used as a metaphor for the world of martial arts warriors (jianghu), which Li Mu Bai renounces when he decides to give up his sword to his friend, Sir Te. Thus, before the compound fight scene, both Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai had finally become ready to live a normal life. However, the stealing of the sword ultimately obstructs these plans. Shu Lien’s intense pursuit of Jen during the rooftop fight scene and her refusal to let the Green Destiny sword go, might symbolize her inability to renounce the jianghu world. Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai cannot consummate their love because of their jiangu obligations. Felicia Chan writes, “they are bound by a respect for Li’s sworn brother and Shu Lien’s betrothed, Meng Sizhao. That Meng was killed in battle does not free them from this obligation and in fact binds them farther into honoring his memory.” (Chan, 76) In addition, the resurfacing of Jade Fox forces them to put aside their feelings for each other in order to focus on the pursuit of vengeance. The final shot of the fight sequence is a static high angle long shot of Shu Lien alone in the courtyard after Jen has finally flown over the wall and escaped. Shu Lien stands motionless, a small figure surrounded by the immense walls of the compound. These walls may represent the codes of honor that have now re-entrapped Shu Lien within the warrior culture and postponed her dream of a married life with Li Mu Bai.
A similar shot is repeated later in the film when Li Mu Bai has retrieved his sword for the first time. Here, a high angled long shot shows Li Mu Bai practicing his sword swings in a courtyard, dwarfed by the buildings of Sir Te’s compound. This is the first time we’ve seen him use the Green Destiny sword, which was stolen soon after he gave it to Sir Te. By taking up this weapon once again, he has symbolically returned to the world of jianghu that he had renounced earlier in the film. This return was prompted by the appearance of Jade Fox, who had killed Li Mu Bai’s master. In the courtyard scene, Shu Lien walks up to Li Mu Bai as he is practicing sword swings and he tells her that he must borrow the sword again for one last mission —-to kill Jade Fox. He is bound by the warrior codes of honor to avenge his master. Nevertheless, he expresses regret at his inability to renounce violence when he tells Shu Lien, “I thought by giving up the Green Destiny Sword, I could escape the jianghu world. But the cycle of bloodshed continues.” Just as he is physically trapped in the courtyard, he is mentally trapped in the warrior culture. In his pursuit of vengeance, Li Mu Bai is ultimately successful (he kills Jade Fox), but at the cost of his own life. Thus, like the characters in Hero, he ends up sacrificing himself. However, instead of sacrificing himself to the ideal of peace, he sacrifices himself to the violent warrior codes of honor and justice, which he was unable to transcend.
In many ways, Jen is the opposite of Li Mu Bai. She finds her aristocratic lifestyle dull and stifling and longs for a way out. Enamored with literature about martial arts warriors, she idealizes and romanticizes the life of a swordfighter, which she believes will give her the freedom and mobility that she desires. In her mind, she carries around a powerful yet unattainable image of the swordfighter as the embodiment of absolute independence, even though Shu Lien attempts to disillusion her of this notion. Early in the film she says to Shu Lien, “It must be exciting to be a fighter, to be totally free” to which Shu Lien replies, “fighters have rules too: friendship, trust, integrity. Without rules we wouldn’t survive for long.” Jen only sees the liberating aspects of jianghu (perhaps symbolized in the image of the flying warrior), while neglecting the responsibilities, restrictions and codes associated with the jianghu lifestyle. Thus, Jen and her master, Jade Fox see “the jianghu world as an escape from society” (Chan, 77) but lack “the moral aptitude necessary to operate within that world.” (Chan, 77) After all, Jen stole Li Bu Mai’s sword purely for her own amusement. In addition, at one point in the film, Jen tells Shu Lien that Shu Lien is just like the warriors in stories and Shu Lien replies, “Sure. No place to bathe, sleeping in flee-infested beds. They tell you about that in those books?” Nevertheless, the level-headed Shu Lien is ultimately unable to pull Jen out of the clouds of her imagination. This struggle between the two swordswomen might be visualized during the first fight scene at the compound, in which Shu Lien constantly struggles to stop Jen’s flight and attempts to drag her toward the ground in order to prevent her escape.
This image of Shu Lien attempting to pull Jen out of the sky can be extended as a metaphor for Jen’s view of the world. Jen refuses to be constrained by tradition and exudes a wild independence that no one can tame. Thus, in a sense, she is in a constant state of “flight” because she will not let herself be tied down to anything. First, she subverts the normal master-disciple relationship of respect by stealing Jade Fox’s Wudan manual and secretly mastering martial arts on her own. According to Felicia Chan, “Jen has committed the ultimate offense in jianghu terms: she has betrayed her own master.”(Chan, 77) Jen also passionately and violently rejects Li Mu Bai’s attempts to convince her to leave Jade Fox and become his disciple at Wudan. Chan writes, “Li’s desire to train her is in part an attempt to impart the moral discipline required to wield her talent responsibly.” (Chan, 77) In fact, in his first encounter with Jen, Li Mu Bai says, “deep down you’re good. Even Jade Fox couldn’t corrupt you.” He wants to bring the wayward, uncontrollable Jen into the established order embodied by the Wudan academy. In addition, in their article, “Confucianizing Hollywood”, Yeh and Davis note that in the scenes between Jen and Li Mu Bai “discipleship shades into the quicksand of courtship.” (Yeh and Davis, 193)
Thus, there are also sexual undercurrents in Li Mu Bai’s desire to train Jen. Furthermore, swordplay as foreplay was established earlier in the film in the erotic desert scenes of Jen and the bandit Lo, thereby making the fight between Jen and Li Mu Bai in the bamboo forest even more suggestive. Jen makes this connection explicit when she yells at Li Mu Bai, “Wudan is a whorehouse! Keep your lessons.” The act of discipleship involves a complete submission to one’s master and the renunciation of one’s freedom and independence to his control and dominance. This is not something that Jen is prepared to do. She also does not want to join Wudan because she refuses to be confined by its traditions and obligations. Instead, she would rather remain Jade Fox’s disciple because Fox is unable to exert control over her and thus Jen is actually the more powerful one in the relationship. Jen even rejects her obligations to her family. She complains several times to Shu Lien about her arranged marriage, which she believes will stifle her freedom. Ultimately, she flees from her husband and parents, refusing to be dominated by a patriarchal family system.
Lo, her desert bandit lover, represents an alternative lifestyle—the possibility of withdrawal from society. However, this is ultimately not enough for her either and at the very end of the film she jumps off of the bridge at Wudan and flies downward.
We see a shot of her flying through the clouds toward the camera as she opens her arms. Then she passes the camera, which pans down to reveal her vanishing beneath more clouds. The tranquility of this beautiful shot, coupled with the calm music and Jen’s arm-spreading gesture suggest that the suicidal jump functions as a kind of liberation from or transcendence of the material world, with all its rules and limitations. This image of uninhibited flight suggests that she has finally attained the ultimate freedom she has desired throughout the film and Jen seems to have achieved a kind of spiritual bliss. According to Yeh and Davis her leap is ultimately “a rebuff to the call of any patriarchal or patriotic duty” (Yeh and Davis, 193) since she refuses to be tied down by obligations to Wudan masters, family, or husbands and asserts her independence. This reading is supported by Shu Lien’s parting advice to Jen to “be true to yourself,” which Jen can only accomplish through escaping the confines of the material world. Thus, in this way, Jen, unlike Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien, is able to rebel against and ultimately transcend traditional systems of control, represented by the Wudan/jianghu principles and the patriarchal family order.
These themes of transcendence, renunciation, and flight can also be applied to the phenomenal international response to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Crouching Tiger was very well received in the West and was nominated for a then unprecedented ten Academy Awards, ultimately winning four, including Best Foreign Language Film. According to Felicia Chan, this was very significant since “Ang Lee and Crouching Tiger [were] the first East Asian entrants to attract such media attention since Akira Kurosawa was nominated for Ran in 1986” and the success of the film encouraged “the perception that Asian Cinema [had] finally arrived.” (Chan, 73) Thus, the film was able to transcend purely Chinese or East Asian audiences and achieve critical and box office success on the other side of the world. Furthermore, Crouching Tiger’s immense popularity led a renewed international interest in Chinese martial arts films (a “global wuxia craze” (Chang, 105) according to Hsiao-hung Chang), resulting in the production of films like Hero designed as blockbusters with foreign audiences in mind.
In a sense, the flight of these films around the world mirrors Jen’s liberating leap at the end of Crouching Tiger: the international success of these films helped increase awareness of Chinese productions and opened up Chinese films to a much larger audience. In fact, the act of flight itself depicted in these films might have been crucial to their foreign success. Felicia Chan quotes Paul Dergarabedian, “the reason Crouching Tiger may transcend its foreign-language status is that it’s an action film. There’s a lot of visual information. That translates well in foreign markets.” (Chan, 72) Furthermore, the flying wuxia warrior embodies the universal desire to fly and thus may represent a kind of wish fulfillment. In addition, the flying warrior appeals to Western viewers because he/she is the ultimate symbol of ‘the exotic’ and ‘the fantastical’. Perhaps this is why some critics claimed that Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou had “simply pandered to Western tastes” (Chan, 74) by packaging an exoticized version of Chinese culture as a global commodity. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms, it is clear that Crouching Tiger and Hero have increased the visibility of Chinese cinema world-wide.
Thus, the narrative themes of transcendence and renunciation in Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can be read into the image of the flying warrior, but not without raising a number of important issues. In both of these films, the act of flight might function as a complex metaphor with a plethora of potential meanings. In Hero, airborne combat may symbolize a state of emotion—a violent desire for vengeance that blinds the warrior from the more ‘grounded’ realm of pragmatism and evaluation of long-term benefits (i.e. the unification of China). However, physical flight simultaneously represents the possibility of transcending the material world, and thus the possibility of transcending the need for bloodshed. Ultimately, these conflicting meanings are reconciled when Nameless and Broken Sword stop flying and surrender their swords to a higher ideal.
A similar contradiction appears in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which Jen’s flight evokes her need for freedom and her refusal to be tied down or controlled by tradition. Here ‘flight’ functions in both senses of the word –as the act of flying and the act of escape. However, Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien also fly even though they remain tethered to the jianghu codes and discipline from which they are unable to break free. Yet, when Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien fly, it is never in the interest of personal liberty, but rather in the pursuit of their jianghu obligations. Thus, for these two characters, flight is intimately connected to the jianghu lifestyle and only further ensnares them within that world. Finally, we can at least partially attribute the successful ‘flight’ of these wuxia films across the globe to the image of the airborne warrior, which embodies both the universal language of action and transcultural desire to soar among the clouds.
Berry, Chris and Mary Ann Faquhar. China On Screen: Cinema & Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Chan, Felicia. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in Chinese Films In Focus II, ed. Berry, Chris (pp. 73-81). London: Palgrave Macillan: 2008.
Chang, Hsiao-hung. “The Unbearable Lightness of Globalization: On the Transnational Flight of Wuxia Film” in Cinema Taiwan: Politics, Popularity and State of the Arts, eds. Davis, Darrell Williams & Ru-Shou Robert Chen (pp. 105-107). New York: Routledge, 2007.
Yeh, Emilie Yueh-yu and Darrell William Davis. Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.