By Jared M. Gordon
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – 2000 – dir. Ang Lee
“When in comes to the affairs of the heart, even the greatest warriors can be consummate idiots.”
Ang Lee’s homage to Du Lu Wang’s kung-fu novel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, I must confess, did not make an instant impression upon me the first time that I saw it. The film soars with Lee’s breathtaking direction and cinematography by Academy award-winner Peter Pau, but I found the story meandering and simple.
Of course, I missed the point, discovered only after a re-watch. The story is indeed simple. It is the characters who are complex. This is an ironic movie about opposites: finding through loss. Gaining through sacrifice. Joy through despair. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a simple story about masculinity, femininity, and life.
Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is a hale and hearty veteran warrior. Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) is his friend and fellow fighter, a woman who has unusually chosen the warrior’s path. Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), torn between a promised and comfortable marriage and being true to her desires, walks the sword’s edge – power without discipline.
Li Mu Bai says, “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again.” Jen Yu and Li Mu Bai are opposing forces: himself, seeking assistance. Her, growth unchecked. Himself, a student of reaction. Herself, an initiator of conflict. Himself, restraint. Her, desire.
Li Mu Bai walks the dutiful, measured path prescribed for him without once acting on his own desires. Jen Yu acts willfully and on impulse without consideration as to who she may affect or how. Both characters fight, but more importantly, both characters learn from the other. Each has lessons for the other, of which their physical conflict is but a superficial exhibit.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is undoubtedly a film about letting go, in spite of the connections that we have worked so hard to forge: connections of love, friendship, and family. Whether by time or choice, every relationship that you have ever had, if it has not already ended, will. Li Mu Bai quotes his master, “There is nothing we can hold onto in this world.”
But are we abandoned to despair? Li Mu Bai becomes the master in the end. He realizes what ties him to the cycle – what will never perish – and what is therefore preferable to transcendence.
“Let your soul rise to eternity with your last breath. Do not waste it for me.”
But Li Mu Bai does not meditate. He does not do as he was taught.
“I’ve already wasted my whole life. I want to tell you with my last breath I have always loved you.”
He clings to a hidden, unrequited attachment… an abstract concept.
“I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you.”
In doing so, he learns the final lesson: the one thing that never, ever ends.
“Because of your love, I will never be a lonely spirit.”
Something that can’t be proven to exist, but, in irony, turns out to be the most real thing of all.
“Only by letting go can we truly possess what is real.”