Re: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Date: Thu Jan 18 2001 - 17:15:43 MST

[Having finished a major project at work earlier than I anticipated, I find I
have a few minutes to write. I offer the following, which CONTAINS SPOILERS.]

A long time ago, wrote:

>I've been trying to think of an Extropian angle on this film, but I
>haven't had much luck.

With good reason. I happened to unexpectedly see this film with a group of
people one evening this week. Although I was very impressed by its cinematic
qualities and readily admit that it is certainly one of the best Chinese
martial arts movies ever made, I have ultimately concluded that the film is
deeply disturbing for two reasons: It is misleadingly "quasi-historical" and
it encourages the unfortunate continuing uncritical pop-culture celebration
of superstitious supernaturalism.

Regarding the first point, I confess to a curmudgeonly habit of grumbling
criticism of cinematic anachronism. One of my favorite targets is the manner
in which film depictions of the Arthurian legends are set in some
historically indefinite "Middle Ages" and almost invariably contain a gross
mishmash of a-historical technologies, especially the grossly wrong equipment
of the "knights" with elaborate 16th century plate "art-armor" which in fact
saw real combat use only during a very short period of time a thousand years
after the time when the real Arthur might have lived. In these films Camelot
is usually shown to be some kind of idealized late mediaeval palace, rather
than the rough, run-down abandoned Roman border fortress that it would have
been had it actually existed.

However, the typical absurd Hollywood glamorization of the visual element of
the Arthurian legends is relatively harmless. Most movie audiences know that
there is some doubt about the reality of the legends and, if they think about
it with any historical knowledge at all, know that whatever reality may lie
behind the myths is in the deep mists of a very long-gone era which has
little if any direct impact on contemporary life.

Not so with the world depicted in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Although
most Western movie-goers won't realize it, the film actually provides many
clues to being placed in an identifiable time and place. Even before the
lovely Chen Chang reveals in dialogue that her character Jen Yu is a
high-born young Manchu lady, it is apparent that the film is set during the
zenith of the Manchu Ching dynasty, probably some time between 1700 and 1850;
more likely toward the middle of that period. We know this because the
ethnic Chinese - or "Han" - male characters all wear queues, a hairstyle
mandated by their Manchu conquerors when the Ching defeated the last of the
native Ming rulers in the 17th century.

Other clues place the film more precisely within the Ching period. We can be
confident that the film takes place before the earth-shattering upheavals of
the Tai-Ping rebellion in the middle of the 19th century (perhaps the
largest-scale war in human history and certainly the largest civil uprising).
 The seeming certainly of Manchu dominance and lack of reference to any kind
of Han resentment at the Ching place the film after the initial stages of the
dynasty, thus placing it in its middle period.

Beyond this, the director has gone out of his way to provide further
grounding of the film in specific realities of the political and military
world of the middle Ching period. The powerful emperors of the time faced
constant low-level threats on the far western borders of the empire from
non-Han people (for instance the Uighurs). A number of capable Manchu
military governors were sent to Xinjiang province in the western desert to
subdue these rebellious peoples. Ang Li (the director) has the characters
make specific reference to "Governor Yu's" service in Xinjiang and important
plot events take place there, with the characters stating that that is the
locale, rather than some indefinite "west".

So, why does this matter? Because Ang Li has depicted important aspects of
Chinese society during this period in grossly incorrect and dangerously
misleading ways. The two main female characters, Yu Shu Lien (the woman who
runs the "security agency") and Yu Jen (the young Manchu girl), are utterly
unrealistic characters. First, I feel certain that young Yu Jen would have
had bound feet. By this point the Manchus had become quite Sinified and had
adopted most aspects of traditional Chinese Confucian culture including, I
believe, binding their women's feet. I checked a picture of Cu Shi, the
infamous "Dowager Empress" of the last years of the Ching, and it looks to me
like she has bound feet. A career as a martial arts magician would have been
impossible for someone whose feet had been broken into tiny painful stubs, as
was the case for all Han women of even moderate social status for many
centuries before the time in which the film is set.

The other character, Yu Shu Lien was even more problematic. The scene in
which she rides proudly by herself through the streets of Beijing is utterly
anachronistic. No such behavior on the part of an educated woman of means
would have been tolerated in Confucian China. While there were certainly
examples of powerful women in traditional China, they were exceedingly rare
and ALWAYS exercised their power indirectly, through male surrogates (for
instance, as in the most infamous example, Cu Shi, mentioned above). A scene
such as that so nonchalantly offered by Li of Yu Shu Lien openly riding a
horse unescorted through the city would have set off a riot.

Other examples of inaccuracies in the depiction of the film's female
characters abound. Yu Shu Lien would likely also have had bound feet, if her
father had had anything like the kind of social status she seemed to inherit
from him, again making her performance as a "warrior" physically impossible.
Beyond this, the Yu family's seeming unquestioning acceptance of their young
daughter back into their family and arrangement of her marriage to a Manchu
prince would have been unthinkable after she had been "sexually liberated" by
a non-Han "barbarian".

Again, why does it matter? As one of the people I watched the movie with
asked when I began expressing my irritation at these things said "Can't you
just enjoy the story?" If the film had been set in some indeterminate past,
perhaps. But one aspect of the movie that has drawn a lot of comment is its
depiction of "female empowerment". I don't think it does the cause of women
in China or the rest of the Sinitic world good to be unrealistic about just
how deeply misogynistic traditional Chinese culture was -- and more
importantly -- is. Confucianism's glorification of inequality at every level
of society, including explicitly between men and women, is still a living,
powerful force in Asia. Depiction of female characters in the way we see
them in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" lulls people into believing that the
burden of the past is lighter than in fact it is.

My second complaint about the film is one that I level at much of what comes
out of Hollywood and the general "pop culture machine" these days: The
uncritical depiction of supernatural phenomena continues the process of
"dumbing down" our cultural world. It isn't enough that the stars of
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" are consummate martial arts experts. No,
they must also be able to fly by leaping or simply pointing their fingers.

China, like the rest of the world, is awash in a rising sea of superstition
and belief in the supernatural. The surprising strength and growth of the
"Fa Long Gong movement" shows just how ready people are to embrace nonsense.
On our movie and television screens we come to expect that people flying
through an act of will, seeing ghosts, being possessed by demons, finding
criminals through telepathy or being visited by angels is an everyday
experience. Meanwhile scientists are almost always depicted as
poorly-adjusted geeks at best and "evil geniuses" at worst. "Science" in the
movies is just a convenient label to put on whatever gimmick the screenwriter
needs to throw into a story to get out of plot jam.

Yes, Ang Li's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a beautiful,
well-constructed film. And that is perhaps why it has irritated me so much:
Once again, we see the considerable talents of the pop culture machine
invested in creating deceptive, seductive nonsense that divorces us from the
real past and the real world, when the real past and the real world offer
wonders aplenty.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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