Film & TV

The Effortless Action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

A perfect example of the Mars archetype on film can be found in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee. It’s an action adventure movie set in a mythical version of ancient China based on a novel in the wu xia tradition about virtuous warriors with supernatural abilities. The spectacular fights play like dances – the characters defy gravity, run up walls, fly and make impossible leaps – like The Matrix, but cooler.

The film draws on Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist philosophy, and explores many themes, including freedom and independence versus loyalty and duty, self-mastery and the nature of enlightenment, secrets and forbidden love, and gender roles. It manages to be both graceful and violent, with some playful moments of humour, and an ambiguous ending.

Before we go any further, here’s the !!**SPOILER WARNING**!! for anyone who hasn’t seen the film.

Crouching Tiger is dominated and driven by the female characters but the protagonist is Li Mu Bai, a warrior monk trained in the arts of Wudan who has decided to retire and give up his sword, Green Destiny. He feels like a failure and hasn’t been able to avenge the death of his master. Perhaps he can find peace with his friend (and secret love) Shu Lien, a fellow warrior and successful businesswoman.

Shu Lien gives Green Destiny to Sir Te for safekeeping and meets a visiting governor and his daughter, Jen Yu, who is about to be married. When the sword is stolen, Shu Lien quickly realises that Jen is keeping secrets and has been trained in Wudan by Jade Fox, the notorious criminal who killed Mu Bai’s master. Mu Bai is intrigued by Jen and offers to become her teacher.

Jen has her own ideas and when her secret lover, Lo, tries to stop her marriage, she runs away from everyone, seeking freedom. But her actions cause a deadly chain of events and Mu Bai is poisoned in the crossfire. As he dies, he makes peace with Shu Lien, and Jen makes a final wish before leaping into the mist…

Mu Bai and Shu Lien avoid the elephant in the room

The title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon refers to the idea of hiding your strength and the phrase is usually translated as ‘men of talent in hiding.’ All the main characters have secrets or are keeping some aspect of themselves or their feelings hidden. Repression is one of Ang Lee’s favourite subjects and he illustrates it by exploring how people become trapped in roles or inhibited by social structures and expectations.

The film starts with the meeting of two old friends, Mu Bai and Shu Lien. They clearly love each other but haven’t been able to act on it. Social rules, respect for tradition and guilt have kept them apart for years – and maybe their own fears and stubbornness too. As Sir Te says,

“When it comes to emotions even great heroes can be idiots.”

Mu Bai certainly seems confused. He believes he has failed in his meditation despite reaching a high level of attainment where time and space disappeared. He came to a place his master had never described but:

“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.”

That something is his attachment to Shu Lien. He wants to be with her but he’s in conflict with himself and the teachings are getting in the way. Or rather, his understanding of them is getting in the way. Something is definitely holding him back but it might not be what he thinks it is.

Later in the film, Mu Bai and Shu Lien take a moment to connect over tea and he finally plucks up the courage to hold her hand, saying:

“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 disagrees and says not everything is an illusion – her hand is real – and that repressing your feelings only makes them stronger. She’s trying to bring him back to the world, and to her, and stop him from getting lost in emptiness.

Perhaps she has more wisdom that he does, or perhaps she’s restrained by her Confucian beliefs. As a businesswoman, she’s focused on the world and grounded in the practical details of life. She’s good at connecting with others and cares about the people in her community.

Mu Bai is the opposite, floating off into the spiritual world, lost in transcendence. He’s respected for his legendary status as a warrior but is aloof and alone – and lonely. He wants to escape the world with all its corruption, but finds being with Shu Lien gives him a sense of peace.

Mu Bai obviously has some unfinished business. He believes he needs to avenge his master’s death but he really needs to confront his shadow and heal the mistakes of the past – his own and those of his master. Enter Jade Fox and her beautiful young disciple.

When Mu Bai meets Jen it gives him a new lease of life and he offers to become her teacher. He claims this is for altruistic reasons – she needs proper training and without it could become a poisoned dragon. However, he might be interested in her for other reasons too – the classic mid-life crisis – a way to avoid his real problems.

Jen fights

Jen has been brought up to be a good daughter and soon-to-be wife, and knows how to do all the important things like serve tea, write calligraphy, and look beautiful. But she’s bored out of her mind and longs for the freedom and adventure of the warrior way of life. She admires Shu Lien who appears to have the independence that she craves.

Shu Lien soon puts her straight, saying fighters have rules too, like friendship, trust, and integrity. But Jen doesn’t want to follow the rules. She’s naïve, selfish, wilful and undisciplined. Her Wudan training has given her great skill but she’s living in a fantasy world, unaware of the real sacrifices she would have to make to be a great warrior.

She lives out her fantasy in a spectacular fight in a restaurant where she takes on countless warriors single-handed. As she fights, she boasts of her prowess and gives herself overblown titles. The restaurant is trashed. She has no respect or true mastery – it’s just chaos and destruction for no apparent reason. The unleashing of her will just because she can.

This reckless wilfulness almost gets her killed after bandits attack her father’s caravan on a journey through the desert. When Lo steals her comb, she chases after him to get it back, full of self-righteous outrage. Later she escapes his hideout and runs away into the desert. She has no idea where she is and ends up collapsing in the heat.

She appears so determined to be independent and free that she’s willing to die for it. Or maybe it’s arrogance and a lack of real knowledge about the world and her own limits. She’s too attached to the romantic fantasies in the novels she reads and believes she can just take what she wants – like Lo takes her comb.

Her sense of privilege means she takes the sword and uses it without earning the right to wield it. This makes her dangerous because she hasn’t mastered her lower nature – the part of herself that’s spoiling for a fight. She’s demanding freedom from outside – that it be given to her – but real freedom comes from self-discipline and hard work. Jen prefers the fantasy.

Mu Bai shows off with a twig

Jen wants to be free but she won’t be until she masters herself. She needs to learn that the true power of the sword comes from within her own mind. Mu Bai proves this when he defeats her using a twig. He says he can teach her to fight with the sword but first she must learn “to hold it in stillness” and that “real sharpness comes without effort.” Self-mastery comes from surrender to the Tao, as he explains, there is:

“No growth without resistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again.”

Mu Bai demonstrates the Taoist principle of Wu Wei or effortless action when he fights Jen in a bamboo forest. He has perfect poise and inner stillness which allows him to balance on the bamboo with ease. No matter how much Jen tries to throw him off balance, he just smiles. He moves with the bamboo and doesn’t resist – he goes with the flow – serenity in action.

Jen has no inner peace so she keeps losing her balance. Her actions are too impulsive and motivated by anger and defiance. She challenges Mu Bai, saying if he can take the sword from her in three moves, she’ll agree to be his disciple. But when he takes it in one move, she’s outraged and refuses to honour the deal. So he throws the sword over a waterfall.

Jen recklessly dives into the rapids to retrieve it and ends up unconscious – again. Mu Bai watches anxiously as Jade Fox appears and pulls Jen from the water and flies away into the forest.

Jade Fox

Jade Fox is a poisoned dragon – a warrior whose power has become distorted by hatred. She’s portrayed as a man-hating witch but is a tragic figure, poisoned by anger – a bit like Medusa in Greek mythology. She wanted to train in Wudan but Mu Bai’s master refused to teach her, although he was happy to sleep with her. So she stole the secret manual and used it to train Jen.

But Jen quickly surpassed her teacher because Jade Fox was illiterate and couldn’t fully understand the teachings. Jen describes how frightened she was when she realised she had nobody to guide her. Mu Bai experienced a similar thing when he discovered something in his meditation that his master hadn’t prepared him for. He thinks he’s failed and gives up.

This raises important questions about the failure of teachers and the misuse of power. Mu Bai’s master kept secrets and used his hidden knowledge as a form of control. Jen hid her understanding from Jade Fox to protect her feelings, but also perhaps so Jen could feel superior. And despite needing a teacher, she rejects Mu Bai’s offer because she doubts his motives – perhaps rightly so.

These kinds of power relationships are fertile ground for abuse and anyone claiming special knowledge should be questioned. Perhaps these Wudan masters don’t know as much as they claim, or have doubtful morals and shouldn’t be trusted.

Then again, everyone has flaws and imperfections. As long as a master is human, you can’t expect them to be perfect. If you’re following the way of Taoism, the goal is to achieve balance between the light and the dark, not to eliminate one or the other.

For example, when Sir Te meets Governor Yu, he gives him some advice on how to rule and says he can benefit from contacts in the criminal underworld. Even an enemy can be helpful because conflict and adversity bring out hidden strengths. The inner pressure from your lower drives creates your desire to be free.

By confronting Jade Fox and grappling with Jen, Mu Bai is forced to face his shadow and the parts of himself that he’s been avoiding. It brings him back down to earth and reminds him that he’s human.

Mu Bai does the right thing despite his gonads

On the other hand, there may be good reasons for keeping secrets. In Buddhism, there’s a technique called skilful means which is a way to teach a lesson that can only be learned by doing it for yourself. Trying and failing can be the best way to learn because you discover the truth about your limitations and attachments, and your hidden strengths.

There are also teachings that can only be understood when you reach the right level of self-mastery. This often involves a process of disillusionment and can include the real and/or apparent failure of the master.

Up until this point, you know what to do because you’ve been following a clear path and the instructions of the master. But then the path and the master disappear and you’re on your own. You have to let go of everything you previously believed and step into not knowing.

Perhaps this is where Mu Bai has arrived in his meditation, and where Jen reaches at the end of the film. Mu Bai believed enlightenment would be blissful and is disillusioned when he feels sorrow instead. His expectations are shattered because that’s what enlightenment does.

If he had experienced bliss, he would’ve assumed he was enlightened when, perhaps, he wasn’t. He might have got attached to the bliss and become a bliss junkie. 😇 Then he could have created an identity around the bliss and called himself enlightened and missed the point entirely.

Of course, this depends what you believe enlightenment is – and that’s a can of worms – but in Buddhism it means freedom from suffering. Mu Bai doesn’t find freedom, but sorrow. He’s not free from whatever is causing his sorrow so he’s not free from suffering.

However, enlightenment doesn’t necessarily exclude sorrow – it doesn’t exclude anything. You can be enlightened and feel sad. The question is how you relate to the sorrow. Are you troubled by it? Does it cause suffering or can you just feel it and let it be?

The point is to approach everything with equanimity – to be balanced between the opposites and not attached to either side. It’s equanimity that creates freedom from suffering, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be bouncing around with happiness forever. Pain and difficulty will still arise – the question is how you respond to it.

And that’s the real meaning of self-mastery and the key to true freedom. Perhaps this is also closer to the way Shu Lien operates – maybe she’s the enlightened one?!

Shu Lien carries the sword

Having said all that, Mu Bai giving up his meditation may be a sign of wisdom rather than failure. Without guidance from his master, perhaps he doesn’t recognise that he’s enlightened. It’s his lack of insight into this experience that drives the rest of the story and brings him to the point where he can see the truth.

The real secret of enlightenment is that there is no secret. You already have what you’re looking for – your true nature – you just have to realise it. That process takes effort and creates the illusion that enlightenment is something you can control or attain for yourself, like a sword. But enlightenment comes from surrender. Just like love.

Mu Bai has reached the point where he’s ready to let go of everything – his master, his sword, his whole identity as a warrior – but there’s one thing pulling him back to the world: his love of Shu Lien. Without her, he’s incomplete – only one side of a circle. As he dies, he finally surrenders to love:

“I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you. Because of your love I will never be a lonely spirit.”

It’s one of the saddest moments on film – always makes me cry my eyes out! 😭

Shu Lien spares Jen’s life and tells her to always be true to herself. It’s a curious thing to say to the person whose selfish actions caused the death of the man you love. But Jen has been through her own process of disillusionment about the nature of Wudan and what it means to be a warrior.

Although Jen rejected Mu Bai’s teachings, his actions trained her anyway, especially his death. His sacrifice to save her life could be a demonstration of skilful means – a teaching without teaching. She finally learns what it means to be selfless.

She meets Lo on Wudan mountain and reminds him of the legend of the boy who jumped knowing that “a faithful heart makes wishes come true.” Instead of wishing for herself, she asks Lo to make a wish, and he wants to be with her in the desert again.

Jen jumps off the bridge and glides down into the mist. She’s not flying because that would mean she was in control of what’s happening. She has finally let go of control and surrendered…

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Images: film stills

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