Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

FYI. So many people have asked for help with Crouching Tiger, I'm forwarding a kind of FAQ I originally sent to Mary Kirkaldy, one of the editors I'm working with now. This is off the top of my head, purely to help you enjoy the film more. At least it's an informed opinion. I haven't researched this book; the contemporary Chinese novel is not one of my research specialties. This summer in Beijing I hope to find the book the movie is based on. Contains minor plot spoilers.

>Are you familiar with Crouching Tiger? Is one
>of the scenes at the Flaming Cliffs?

The farthest East I've been is the Gobi Desert, the 4th century Buddhist caves at Dunhuang. That's two airplanes East of Beijing, and on the second, the snack they serve is dried yak. So help me God. Yes, there were places that looked like Crouching Tiger. One of the great things about the film is that it shows Westerners, for the first time, the vast wild China that's out there. Ang Lee shot in the Gobi. But even an hour north of Beijing the Great Wall is built atop cliffs and hills like Italy's.

The magnificent mountain monastery at the movie's end-- not only real, but common! The Hanging Monastery near Datong is even better. Since China's highway system is nonexistent, and China is still largely pre-car, these places off the train lines are almost inaccessible, and unspoiled. See China now, if you can, though it's murder to move around.

The natural caves that appear in the desert cliffs like the one the bandit lived in-- really not as far fetched as you'd think. Buddhist monks retired to places like that, on the Silk Road. That's what I'd gone out to see.

But the Flaming Cliffs are even further up the Silk Road, where the temperature is in the 120s and higher during the day. You're almost into Russia. When the girl rides up chasing them, one of the bandits had blonde hair and was white.

The bandit hero is a Uigher or some other Western minority, part white or Turkic, perhaps even a Moslem. That's a big issue for the plot! He's utterly unsuitable as a spouse.

He has a broad Western accent, lots of "z" sounds added to his words, and he keeps teasing her that she's tough "for a Han." The Han are the majority ethnicity of China-- 95% of Chinese are Han Chinese. He isn't Han so he's teasing her.

But this is the Qing Dynasty, however, when Manchurian ("Man") outsiders had conquered the Han, in 1644. She's an aristocrat and replies haughtily she's 100% Manchu. I can't remember if they bothered to translate that in the subtitles, I partly listen and partly look at the titles. Though the stars are Cantonese, they speak such beautiful clear Mandarin to each other in the film, befitting the romantic architecture and mood.

Ang Lee shows you, for the first time, the Manchu's Qing Dynasty in China's last golden age. Civilized, prosperous, not overpopulated yet. The West didn't surpass it until after the Industrial Revolution. This is a picture of China the West doesn't have, and the film has great value for that alone.

The older woman hero is, by contrast, Chinese, a Han. Her non aristocratic status is remarked on, there's a gulf of class between her and the young aristocratic girl. The aristocrat is trapped, facing marriage. It's all about women, career, marriage, and the need for life to go on.

The trouble begins, you'll notice, when the hero's teacher is willing to sleep with a woman but refuses to teach her. He treats her as a body, not as a mind, so she turns against men, becomes a "witch," the Fox, kills him, and in the manner of fairytales, enters a household as governess, and tries to steal the daughter's soul. Let's hate men together, just the two of us, she says near the end.

That would end life, if it became universal. This is no simple tract. In Confucian society, having a family is close to the heart of one's living religion. The older couple try to tell her they "wasted" their lives by not marrying. At the film's start, the hero has pursued meditation until he discovered, unexpectedly, it wasn't for him. He rejects it and is ready to marry, at last.

The young girl rejects marriage and goes out of control, becomes androgynous, masquerades as a boy. Her unleashed primal female power destroys all those bullies in the inn, and the inn itself. She speaks poetry all through the scene in which she destroys it, a la Cyrano.

She and the witch/Fox retreat to a second watery cave, like an unhealthy parody of the Venus Mount that the bandit and she retreat to. Freud would love it, so sexual. The witch drugs the girl-- with her idealogy, as much as a real drug. A crucial moment comes when the young girl (convinced by the witch that men are evil, believing that all men want is a woman's body) cynically offers herself to the older man, the hero. She bears her body to him.

But he shows only fatherly concern for her, sweeps her up, saying she's drugged. And this ultimately breaks the witch's spell. Fiction is like a dream about our waking lives, in which our struggles appear in larger forms. Good fiction, anyway.