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 kick ass.
Chinese cinema has had a long-standing tradition of pushing the boundaries in storytelling and cinematic techniques, which is surprising for such a conservative and restricted nation. Mixing traditional martial arts epics with more intimate art house films, the Han film industry – which consists of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore – may just be the greatest in the world. Directors like Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee have led the industry into a contemporary and modernised future.
Taiwanese director, Ang Lee is without a doubt one of the greatest and most groundbreaking 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, and they are two of the greatest films of recent time. Lee’s unique vision and passionate disciplinary filmmaking style allow him to craft incredibly humanistic films, whether they’re set in the traditional world of the Quing Dynasty, 18th century Austen England or the Wyoming wilderness in 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 like an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995) and the family drama, The Ice Storm (1997). But it was his return to Asian cinema in 2000 that allowed his to produce his most beloved and critically successful film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Due to Lee’s 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 who is also secretly an expert in advanced martial arts. Crouching Tiger is such an overwhelming display of female empowerment that Megan Kearns of Bitch Flicks proclaimed it might just be the most feminist action film ever made.
Set in China during the Quing Dynasty in the late 1700s, it 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 contain magical powers – to Beijing. There, Shu Lien meets Jen Yu, the Governor’s daughter who is destined to be in an arranged marriage 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.
Highlighted by 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 China during the late 17th century, but it also examines and criticises the social norms and hierarchies of the time.
Our main protagonist, Jen Yu, is presented at the film’s beginning as a seemingly 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 rather envies her freedom. As a young woman born into an aristocratic life, Jen has a purpose to bring unity to her family by marrying the man her parents want her to marry. This arranged marriage will of course 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 lifestyle.
Besides from the epic fight scenes between Jen and Shu Lien, in which they are equally matched in ability and respect for one another, a scene in the middle of the film sees Jen androgynously dressed as she enters into a fight between 20 male warriors in a tavern. The scene showcases not only her incredible skills as a warrior, but her headstrong attitude that later gives her the name, the Dragon, and cements her place as a real warrior.
In a flashback scene, we see Jen defying her parents wishes of marrying a dignitary, when she forms a relationship with Lo (Chang Chen), a handsome and fearless thief who she encounters after he steals he precious ivory comb. After she chases him down fearlessly in the middle of the desert, abandoning her aristocratic mother and entourage, she and Lo – who’s warrior name is Dark Cloud – begin a love-hate relationship, built on passion and fury. Their relationship is never unbalanced, and they are seen as equal in every way. Lo doesn’t ever question why Jen has the skill set she does for a woman and he accepts that she is a better fighter than he is completely.
Shu Lien is a dignified and respected female warrior, and the film does not question her place within the ranks of her fellow male warriors. One of her male friends, who has become a father to a baby girl, states that he hopes his daughter will grow up to be half as strong as Shu Lien is. This sort of respect for a woman, and more or less a woman in power, is an unusual thing to hear in a patriarchal society, yet Lee has not made a grand display of the oddity. Although Shu Lien is respected and highly skilled in her profession, she is at odds with patriarchal society because she cannot be with Mu Bai, the man she truly loves. In order to respect and honour the memory of her late fiancée – whom we don’t really learn much about – she cannot marry another man. This makes her and Mu Bai’s silent longing for one another incredibly heartbreaking and Shu Lien incredibly humanistic.
Jade Fox is an older woman who uses a disguise of a harmless Governess to train her protégé, Jen, into an incredibly skilled warrior. She vents her grievances that she only killed Mu Bai’s master because he would not teach her the ways of the warrior because she’s female. Her revenge to kill him, although not justifiable, was her way of reclaiming her honour, a very important quality to maintain in Chinese culture. Her downfall, however, comes at the end when she discover her student Jen has overpassed with her skills and she attempts to kill Jen, only to be killed herself.
By having three strong female characters exhibit incredible skills in a genre that is traditionally male dominated, Crouching Tiger can be viewed as a feminist film solely due to its characterisation of complex women. Whilst Western audiences immediately viewed the film as empowering and feminist because of our aim to seek out characters we can identify with, in its native China it was not well received. Film scholar Felicia Chan1 cited in an essay 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, you cannot ignore the impact the film had over Western audiences and filmmakers, 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 impair our female characters at every turn. Although our female characters are all empowered within their own ways, inevitably they are still trapped by traditional patriarchal social norms, whether it’s Jen Yu being forced into marriage or 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.