It?s almost 20 years old, but?spoiler alert! This post assumes you?ve already seen Ang Lee?s 2000 film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Li Mu Bai, Jen, Shu Lien, and Lo (left to right).
Grappling with Jen?s decision
Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon astonishes me more than its ending. Our hero, standing atop Wudan Mountain, poised to realize everything she?s struggled for, chooses instead to leap off its high peak, away from the lover and martial arts school that figure so prominently in her story.
As an eight year old, watching Zhang Ziyi?s character jump off a cliff and into the clouds seemed a little silly to me, but no more so than the rest of the film, with its floating fight scenes that felt more out of The Matrix than Qing dynasty China.
But when I rewatched the film in high school, the ending felt out of place to me, almost jarring. Here was a mainstream, critical and commercial success whose conclusion, if taken literally, was the protagonist?s suicide. I?d heard many people sing the film?s praises, highlighting its beautiful love story, breathtaking cinematography, and ensemble performances. But never had I heard it described as tragic.
Even more puzzling to me was the simple question of why. Why had Jen, upon ridding herself of her familial obligations and overbearing master(s), chosen not to return to the desert with her lover, nor continue her training at Wudan, nor even wander the landscape as a lone warrior like she did after fleeing her wedding, but instead hurl herself off a cliff?
Adding a cruel dimension to her decision were her final words to her lover, Lo, standing beside her:
Jen: Do you remember the legend of the young man?Lo: ?A faithful heart makes wishes come true.?Jen: Make a wish, Lo.Lo: (closing his eyes) To be back in the desert, together again.
Jen dedicates her plunge to a wish she is perfectly able to fulfill herself. Her invocation of the young man, who in the legend sacrifices himself because of circumstances beyond his control to save his ailing parents, seems almost spiteful.
And yet, the camera paints a different picture. Jen?s dramatic leap is more of a gentle glide, and her face remains calm and impassive as the clouds slowly subsume her body. As the film ends and the landscape of granite peaks slowly fades to black, it?s hard not to feel like Jen has finally found peace.
The film?s final scene.
Each time I?ve rewatched Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I?ve tried to view the events of the film in the context of our hero?s enigmatic final decision. The more I?ve watched, the more I?ve seen just how much change Jen undergoes as she seeks to reconcile the conflicting identities within her: governor?s daughter, lover, apprentice, warrior, sister, and monk.
Understanding Jen?s changing identity illuminates not only her character, but all the others, too. For while Jen, Li Mu Bai, Shu Lien, Lo, and Jade Fox each hail from different backgrounds, all of them bear the crushing social expectations of eighteenth century China.
Shortly before the film?s end, a devastated Shu Lien, having failed to act on her feelings for Li Mu Bai before his death, exhorts Jen to be true to herself. The rest of this blog post is dedicated to understanding why, for Jen, being true to herself meant jumping off Wudan Mountain.
The governor?s daughter
Of all the roles Jen plays, she is most socially accepted?and encumbered ? as governor?s daughter. Here, she is rarely shown outside the confines of her plush indoor quarters or horse-drawn carriage. She is outfitted in luxurious clothing and makeup, restricted to suitable activities like calligraphy, and carefully watched over by her parents, attendants, and Jade Fox. When it comes to marriage, her father chooses her husband for her, to maximize the benefit to his own career.
In Jen?s first encounter with Shu Lien, her feeling of suffocation is evident:
Jen: You?re not married, are you?Shu Lien: What do you think?Jen: No! You couldn?t roam around freely if you were.Shu Lien: You?re probably right.
Jen, in full court regalia.
Jen: I wish I were like the heroes in the books I read. Like you and Li Mu Bai. I guess I?m happy to be marrying. But to be free to live my own life, to choose whom I love: that is true happiness.
To escape the stifling confines of her life, Jen secretly trains to be a fighter with her master, Jade Fox. When the reality of her arranged marriage becomes too much to bear, she flees her family to roam the countryside as a warrior.
In the deserts of western China, far away from the rigid society in Beijing, Jen discovers her first taste of true freedom. She finds in the bandit Lo someone with as fiery and untamed a spirit as her own. At first, their love is passionate, punctuated by violence and attempts to physically dominate one another. But soon it blossoms into a warm and intimate connection. For a time, the two live happily together in their desert fantasy.
Eventually, though, the reality of their class differences sets in. The governor?s soldiers, out looking for Jen, begin to close in on Lo and his bandits.
?Don?t send me back!? Jen begs Lo.
Lo realizes that even if they could stay together in the desert, Jen would eventually grow ?tired of this life.? He vows to renounce his criminal ways and establish himself legitimately, with the hope of one day earning the respect of Jen?s parents.
Lo and Jen gaze out at the governor?s search parties.
But society sees Lo only as a criminal, and everywhere he goes, his ability to start anew is thwarted. When he eventually returns empty-handed to Beijing, Lo discovers that Jen?s feelings for him have changed.
Exactly what brought about this change is unclear. Perhaps Jen?s relationship with Lo was always going to be a temporary fling for her. Perhaps she realized the class differences between them were prohibitive. Perhaps she recognized that her training and potential as a warrior could never be fully realized with him.
It?s also possible that for Jen, being beholden to anyone would unacceptably compromise her independence. Lo did have something of a possessive streak. When they part ways in the desert, he announces to her, ?I want you to be mine forever.? Later, after Jen spurns Lo in Beijing, a disbelieving Shu Lien asks Lo if he really thought Jen would just ?give it all up and go back West? with him. ?She?s mine,? is all he manages to say in response.
Another complication in Jen?s relationship with Lo is Li Mu Bai. Despite Li Mu Bai?s clear feelings for Shu Lien, the budding master-apprentice relationship between him and Jen is fraught with emotion, and at times is even romantic.
?I knew she would intrigue you,? Shu Lien says to Li Mu Bai, with a tinge of jealousy, as they discuss Jen.
As with Jen and Lo, social expectations stifle the love between Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai. For both, the dead cast a long shadow. Shu Lien feels obligated to suppress her feelings for Li Mu Bai in memory of her deceased fianc, Li Mu Bai?s brother. Li Mu Bai feels obligated to pursue vengeance for his deceased master, killed by Jade Fox, even if it costs him his life, as well as his opportunity to be with Shu Lien.
In many ways, Li Mu Bai is the teacher Jen has needed her entire life. His mastery of the Wudan curriculum and his strong code of ethics contrast him sharply with her master, Jade Fox.
But Li Mu Bai seems oblivious to the misogynistic legacy of Wudan, which weighs heavily on Jade Fox and Jen. Because of the school?s male-only admissions policy, talented women like Shu Lien and Jade Fox have had to hone their ability outside of Wudan, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation:
Li Mu Bai: You stole a secret manual and poisoned our master! Now it?s time for you to pay!Jade Fox: Your master underestimated us women. Sure, he?d sleep with me, but he would never teach me. He deserved to die by a woman?s hand!
Jade Fox?s experience challenges not only the villainous portrayal of her, but also the honor of Li Mu Bai?s quest for vengeance.
Because of the toxic relationship of the prior generation ? between Jen?s master and Li Mu Bai?s master ? it?s all but impossible for Jen to submit herself to Li Mu Bai?s teachings. During their fights, every attempt by Li Mu Bai to impart a lesson on Jen is rebuffed. At one point, Jen cries out, ?Wudan is a whorehouse! Keep your lessons!?
So poisoned is Jen?s perception of Wudan that when she visits Shu Lien at her company headquarters, the mere suggestion that she rendezvous with Lo at Wudan causes her to challenge Shu Lien to armed combat.
Jen?s fear of exploitation by Li Mu Bai is not unfounded. Without even a formal master-apprentice relationship, a romantic connection between Li Mu Bai and Jen begins to grow. All of their fight scenes are physical and intimate, but none more so than their clash in the bamboo forest, where the supple trees bend together under the weight of each warrior, bringing them face to face, within inches of one another.
Jen and Li Mu Bai?s fight in the bamboo forest is intimate and sensual.
So palpable is their romantic tension that when Li Mu Bai later discovers Jen in a drug-induced state, she bares her breasts to him, asking, ?Is it me or the sword you want??
Jen reaches the height of her freedom after she absconds from her wedding. Even in the desert, Jen was bound to Lo. Now, free of her family, lover, and masters, she roams the countryside as a warrior, living out the fantasy she described to Shu Lien in an earlier conversation:
Jen: It must be exciting to be a fighter, to be totally free!Shu Lien: Fighters have rules too: friendship, trust, integrity. Without rules, we wouldn?t survive for long.Jen: I?ve read all about people like you. Roaming wild, beating up anyone who gets in your way!
As she comes across an inn frequented by fighters, Jen seems determined to single-handedly tear down the patriarchal warrior society around her. Openly mocking the title-obsessed male fighters with overblown names like Iron Arm Mi and Shining Phoenix Mountain Gou, she slashes and bludgeons until no one is left to oppose her, at which point she vows to ?kick over Wudan Mountain.?
The desert dragon vows to destroy Wudan.
Even in this cathartic violence, though, she is still reminded of the larger society and her place in it, despite her best attempts to avoid it. When one of the fighters, recognizing Li Mu Bai?s sword in her hand, asks if she is related to the great fighter, she lies and says that he is her defeated foe. When another asks if she is related to his master, Southern Crane ? the same man who exploited her own master, Jade Fox ? she feigns ignorance before mocking him. Finally, when someone introduces himself with the same last name as her fianc, she is so incensed to even be reminded of her arranged marriage that she launches into a violent frenzy.
Perhaps the most complex relationship in the story is that of Jen and Shu Lien. Although Jen violently clashes with all those close to her, what makes her fight with Shu Lien remarkable is how similar the two are, and how seemingly little cause they have for conflict. Both Jen and Shu Lien are talented female fighters living in a society that minimizes their ability. Both, too, are hostages to social pressures that dictate whom they should love.
Of all those in Jen?s life, Shu Lien seems to be the only one with no designs on possessing her in one form or another. Such is the intimacy between the two that toward the end of the film, Jen starts referring to Shu Lien as ?sister.?
For all the commonality they share, though, there is an underlying tension between them that eventually explodes into violence. For Jen, Shu Lien and Jade Fox embody two feminine extremes: total compliance and total resistance. Their respective worldviews pull Jen in opposite directions, leaving her somewhere between the two, often unstable and with no clear direction.
The tension between Jen and Shu Lien comes to a head.
Shu Lien represents the pinnacle of what a woman can achieve working within the society. She is renowned as a fighter, successful as a business owner, and respected for dutifully honoring her dead fianc with celibacy. Unlike Li Mu Bai who radiates power almost to the point of arrogance, Shu Lien constantly practices restraint, leaving her immense ability less obvious.
Jade Fox, on the other hand, represents everything a woman can achieve working outside the society. She is a feared fighter and does not answer to the same burdensome social expectations as Shu Lien. Operating on the fringes, Jade Fox resorts to underhanded fighting techniques such as the use of poison and traps.
And yet, for all their differences in approach, neither woman achieves what they really want. Both are denied admission to Wudan. Jade Fox is relegated to the shadows of society, while Shu Lien is forced to hide in public.
Initially, Shu Lien seems to embrace this compromise. At almost every turn, she discourages Jen from stepping outside her social bounds. In their first conversation, Shu Lien dismisses Jen?s questions about life as a fighter with patronizing responses like ?You?re just not used to handling [the sword]? or ?You?re too young to understand.? Later, when Li Mu Bai suggests that Jen train at Wudan, Shu Lien is quick to reply that Wudan does not accept women. Even when Li Mu Bai indicates an exception could be made for Jen, Shu Lien falls back on another patriarchal excuse, saying that Jen?s husband might object to her studying there. Finally, when Jen arrives on her doorstep after her violent rampage, Shu Lien advises Jen simply to return to her family rather than continuing to blaze her own path.
But after Li Mu Bai?s death, her view changes. For all she achieved working within the society, Shu Lien becomes ambivalent about whether it was worth the steep cost. In her final words to Jen, Shu Lien no longer suggests a particular path to follow, but instead urges Jen simply to be true to herself.
Throughout the film, there is a tension between embracing the physical world, with all its accompanying desires, and withdrawing from it. For most of the film, though, it is Li Mu Bai, not Jen, who wrestles with this spiritual question. During his first visit to Shu Lien, Li Mu Bai confesses that his meditation did not bring him the peace he expected:
Li Mu Bai: I came to a place of deep silence. I was surrounded by light. Time and space disappeared. I had come to a place my master had never told me about.Shu Lien: You were enlightened?Li Mu Bai: No. I didn?t feel the bliss of enlightenment. Instead, I was surrounded by an endless sorrow. I couldn?t bear it. I broke off my meditation. I couldn?t go on. There was something pulling me back.
Li Mu Bai reflects on his meditation.
Although he leaves his meditation to pursue his love for Shu Lien, Li Mu Bai can?t seem to fully commit to the physical world, the world of sensation. In a later conversation with Shu Lien, as she passes him a cup of tea, their fingers touch. Embarrassed, Li Mu Bai pulls back:
Li Mu Bai: Shu Lien, the things we touch have no permanence. My master would say there is nothing we can hold on to in this world. Only by letting go can we truly possess what is real.Shu Lien: Not everything is an illusion. My hand, wasn?t that real?Li Mu Bai: Your hand, rough and calloused from machete practice. All this time, I?ve never had the courage to touch it.
He even denies the physical reality of his powerful sword, the Green Destiny:
Li Mu Bai: Like most things, I am nothing. It?s the same for this sword. All of it is simply a state of mind.Jen: Stop talking like a monk! Just fight!
At one point, to demonstrate to Jen the sword?s supposed worthlessness, he flings it off a waterfall.
Yet, when the Green Destiny is returned to Li Mu Bai after Jen steals it, he admits, ?Getting it back makes me realize how much I?d missed it.?
It?s clear that power resides in the physical sword itself. During Jen?s rampage at the inn, each of the fighters watch helplessly as the Green Destiny splits their weapons into pieces. When Jen and Shu Lien come to blows, Shu Lien, the more experienced fighter, is forced to repeatedly retrieve new weapons to replace those destroyed by Jen?s sword.
?Without the Green Destiny, you are nothing,? she exasperatedly tells Jen.
Complementing the sword is Jen?s comb, the other prominent physical object in the story. Whereas the Green Destiny is the physical embodiment of Jen?s warrior identity, the comb is the embodiment of her identity as a lover. As the sword repeatedly changes hands between her and Li Mu Bai, so too does the comb, between her and Lo, reflecting the ebb and flow of each identity within her.
As the film reaches its climax, both Li Mu Bai and Jen finally resolve their relationship to the physical world, but in dramatically different ways. For Li Mu Bai, this occurs in his dying moments:
Li Mu Bai: My life is departing. I?ve only one breath left.Shu Lien: Use it to meditate. Free yourself from this world as you have been taught. Let your soul rise to eternity with your last breath. Do not waste it for me.Li Mu Bai: I?ve already wasted my whole life. I want to tell you with my last breath: I have always loved you.
After his death, a heartbroken Shu Lien, having let the love of her life slip through her fingers, approaches Jen:
Shu Lien: Now you must go to Wudan Mountain. Lo awaits you there. Promise me one thing, whatever path you take in this life, be true to yourself.
With Shu Lien?s entreaty hanging over her, Jen reunites with Lo one last time and tearfully makes love to him, before leaving behind her comb. Having relinquished both sword and comb, Jen leaps from Wudan Mountain, away from the physical world forever.
Crouching tiger, hidden dragon
The name of the film is taken from a Chinese idiom which describes a place or situation full of unnoticed masters. In one of the film?s most poignant scenes, Shu Lien observes Jen, the governor?s daughter, practicing calligraphy. From the deftness of her brushstrokes, Shu Lien concludes that Jen is more than she appears, that in fact she is the masked warrior from the night before. It is a moment rife with meaning and sadness.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a story of stifled possibility, of lives lived with unrealized potential, where masters are forced to hide in plain sight to avoid the scrutiny of a society that rejects their desires.
Jen?s true ability remains hidden in plain sight.
Why did Jen jump off Wudan Mountain? Li Mu Bai?s dying epiphany was a call to embrace, not reject, the physical world. To learn from the mistakes of the prior generation, Jen should pursue her love for Lo, if not continue her training at Wudan, or so it would seem.
But Jen?s choices are poisoned by the larger society. To return to her family would be to forfeit her say in who she loved. To return to the desert would be to resign herself to a life on the run, possessed by Lo. To return to her training at Wudan would be to subject herself to the school?s legacy of exploitation. And to return to the countryside as a roaming warrior would be to escape only temporarily, with her family and her past never far behind.
With all physical paths exhausted, Jen turns to a spiritual path. By choosing to withdraw from the world, she reestablishes her agency and her ability to make choices consistent with her values. In this way, Jen remains true to herself.
In a world where heroes can fly, it?s unclear if the literal meaning of Jen?s withdrawal is transcendence or self-annihilation.
But I like to think Jen?s faithful heart means Lo?s wish can still come true ? perhaps not in this world, but some other, where, free from her father?s soldiers and free to realize her unlimited potential as a warrior and a lover, she can return to the desert with Lo and be happy.