I’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in parts before, watching Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) sharing tea together and talking about their repressed feelings. Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi)reminiscing about her lost years in the desert. They make me feel like I’m watching a story from Regency period in England as it is a story taking place probably in third century China. But then this movie has fights in them so I know what kind of movie I’m watching. These characters have already made an impression on me before finally seeing the film in entirety, in layman’s terms, knowing what they’re already like.
So I don’t know what it is seeing Shu Lien skip towards the common room to greet Li that strikes me, her feelings emanating through her face and posture. I’m not even sure if this image from the film perfectly captures a young lover within someone supposedly more mature and controlled, because she goes back to being more formal within a split second. I’m comparing this introduction to Shu Lien’s character with the way the film introduces Jen, a demure aristocrat in disguise. Shu Lien’s introduction, however, is a revelation. I use that word even if it doesn’t feel like the rest of her character is lying to herself. She isn’t, she’s just disallowing herself that bit of freedom other thinks she deserve.
There are other women in disguise – like Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), who trained Jen masquerading as the latter’s governess and a policeman’s daughter calling herself a circus performer while trying to find Fox, Jen hiding her own talent from Fox and from the rest of the world. The social strata calls for the female characters to go into these disguises, at the same time this game of pretend allows them to act out freedom and aggression. When other characters, male and female, allow them some defiance, they take on the chance. An example would be the scene when the daughter tells an inspector of her certain belief that a murderer is living under Governor Yu’s household, letting her father’s blood on her shoulder seen by Sir Te.
In a way, this story is just about these two leading women as it is about the Green Destiny. One wants what the other has. There’s also some delicious passive aggressiveness between them specifically from Shu Lien’s part. She tells Jen that she’s happy for Jen’s engagement, temporarily killing the latter’s fantasies of becoming a warrior. She also invites Jen and her mother in guise of an engagement party to test the latter, giving her faint praise after damnation. Jen of course gives the results Shu Lien expects, and does so either because of carelessness, vanity or both. The differences between them are constant until the end, when one goes one direction and the other chooses drastically different. One presumably moves on despite of the death around her, while the other can no longer accept happiness because of the past.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: No 9 (guardian.co.uk)