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kickass feminists on film: jen yu in crouching tiger, hidden dragon

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Everyone knows that complex and empowering female characters are difficult to find in mainstream films. But there are some who have stood out and become the changing faces of feminism in cinema. In this regular column, Jade Bate looks at her favourite film heroines who are strong, empowering and kickass.

Chinese cinema has had a long-standing tradition of pushing the boundaries in storytelling and cinematic techniques, surprising for such a conservative nation. Mixing traditional martial arts epics with more intimate arthouse films, directors like Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee have led the Chinese film industry into the future.

Taiwanese director Ang Lee is one of the greatest and most ground-breaking filmmakers of our time. After becoming the first person of colour to win Best Director in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, he won the award again less than decade later for 2012’s Life of Pi. Lee’s unique vision and passionate, disciplined filmmaking style allow him to craft incredibly compassionate films, whether they’re set in the traditional world of the Quing Dynasty, the Edwardian England of a Jane Austen novel, or the Wyoming wilderness of the 1960s.

Starting with small productions in his homeland like The Wedding Banquet (1993) and the acclaimed Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Lee went on to have international successes with English-speaking films such as the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and 1997’s family drama The Ice Storm But it was his return to Asian cinema in 2000 that allowed him to produce his most beloved and critically successful film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Influenced by his experience with English-speaking films, Crouching Tiger was a traditional martial arts epic that was also very accessible to Western audiences. It remains as one of the most successful foreign language films of all time, with the film winning four Academy Awards out of its 10 nominations. The film also follows three multi-dimensional and empowering female characters, female warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), the deadly assassin Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), and our main protagonist, Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the Governor and secret martial arts expert. Crouching Tiger is such an overwhelming display of female empowerment that Megan Kearns of Bitch Flicks proclaimed it the most feminist action film ever made.

Set during the Quing Dynasty, the film follows the legendary warriors Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien. They are close friends who also have obvious romantic feelings for one another that they cannot act upon. Mu Bai is retiring from his life as a warrior after the mysterious assassin, Jade Fox, killed his master. He asks Shu Lien to take his sword, The Green Destiny – thought to have magical powers – to Beijing. There, Shu Lien meets Jen Yu, the Governor’s daughter who is betrothed to a man she has never met. One night, a thief steals Mu Bai’s sword and evades capture. Later, the thief is revealed to be the seemingly meek and mild Jen, and her Governess is actually Jade Fox, who is also her master and taught Jen everything she knows about fighting.

Notable for its epic fight scenes and mystifying cinematography, Crouching Tiger is pure art in every sense of the word. The film not only presents us with a visually beautiful portrait of Quing Dynasty China; it also examines and criticises the social norms and hierarchies of the time.

Jen Yu is portrayed at the film’s beginning as a meek and mild young woman. Perhaps a little naïve, she constantly praises Shu Lien on her fascinating life as a warrior and hints that she would love to lead the life she has. Of course, later when it is revealed that Jen is actually a skilled warrior herself, we can see why she praises Shu Lien for living her dream so much; she doesn’t envy Shu Lien’s skills, but her freedom. As a young woman born into the aristocracy, Jen is destined to bring unity to her family by marrying the man her parents want her to marry. This arranged marriage will prevent her from leading the life of a warrior that she dreams of living, and she laments, ‘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.’ But her feisty and strong-willed attitude sees her taking the sword and running away from her aristocratic responsibilities. She is shown as skilled in battle, and equal to the task of taking on 20 other warriors. Her romantic relationship with handsome thief Lo (Chang Chen), is one of equal respect: Lo never questions Jen’s skills as  a warrior on the basis of her gender, and happily admits that she is better fighter than he. It’s just not an issue

Crouching Tiger is full of strong female characters; in a genre that is traditionally male-dominated, this is grounds enough to see the film as feminist. Its women are complex, fully-fleshed out, physically and mentally strong. Whilst Western audiences responded positively, the film was not well received in China. Film scholar Felicia Chan wrote that many Chinese audiences saw Crouching Tiger as a weak attempt to convey their cultural identities to Western audiences and thought the plot too simple. However, the film’s impact on Western audiences and filmmakers is undeniable, with films like Kill Bill (2003) and Charlies Angels (2001) being highly influenced by Crouching Tiger’s characterisation of strong women experienced in martial arts.

Of course, patriarchal rule is ever-present in the film, and constantly tries to thwart the women. Although our female characters are all empowered in their own way, they are inevitably trapped by traditional patriarchal social norms; whether it’s Jen Yu being forced into marriage, Shu Lien not being able to marry the man she loves, or Jade Fox’s inability to gain the knowledge she longs for due to her gender. But regardless of the unjustness of societal norms, the obstacles they face also give them something to fight for, be it love or honour or freedom.

Crouching Tiger succeeds in every way as a feminist film because it does not once question our female character’s capabilities; rather it allows them to become flawed and complex human beings.

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