by L.S. Kim
This essay focuses on gender, genre, and transnationalism, specifically in considering the tradition of the female action hero in Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts films and its debut for Western viewers in the independent, international co-production, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. This essay examines the Asian female action star within the dual contexts of Asian reception and Western perception. That is, it explores the different reading strategies and the complex tensions that arise because Orientalism inevitably serves as most U.S. viewers' framework for understanding. Are U.S. viewers able to read women warriors through a Chinese cultural context, or do these characters get re-read as exotically "Oriental" (and as exotic Other)? Does pleasure come in the female action heroes (identifying with or affirming their subjectivity), or of the “battling babes” (ultimately objectifying them)? Is spectatorial response necessarily either/or?… in terms of the pleasure in looking, as well as in terms of whether a viewer's ethnic or cultural position dictates who objectifies and who affirms the Asian female action star.
In her book, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, Rey Chow writes about what she calls “the deadlock of the anthropological situation” in cross-cultural "exchange" (Chow, 1995, p. 177). This "deadlock" indicates the limitations that the history of Western imperialism and colonialism put on cross-cultural exchange. Furthermore, classical anthropology operates with a premise of a binary structure separating observer/observed. Like Chow, I try to find ways to break out of a binary logic that necessarily places a non-Asian or non-Easterner in the position of Orientalist objectifier, while at the same time, still acknowledging Orientalism as a reading and representational structure, especially when it is taken up by Asian or Asian American directors (for example, Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee).
Here I wish to trace relations between the martial arts genre and its forging women as heroes. The central question is this: Is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon something new, or does the film adapt an older tradition? Is it a new way of looking at women, and Asian women, in action or physical combat? How is that newness different when considered in an Asian context vs. a Western one?
Contrary to popular western perception, Asian women are not passive, pliant females ready to be rescued by men, or by “white knights,” as Gina Marchetti (1993) writes about with respect to Hollywood films. Asian women heroes are, quite literally, active in the specific genre of the Hong Kong action film, which is derived from Chinese martial arts and Peking Opera traditions, and which has roots in folk legends of women warriors. For example, two famous legends are Wing Chun and Fa Mu Lan: Wing Chun learned the southern technique of martial arts from a Buddhist nun, Ng Mui (who devised the system after watching a fight between a snake and a crane) in order to protect her chastity. Fa Mu Lan disguised herself as a man in order to fight in her father’s place against the invading Huns. In addition, films have captured the heroic feats of women — from the King Hu epic Come Drink With Me (1966) starring Cheng Peipei, to the modern-day Yes, Madam (1985) starring then-known Michelle Khan before her name change, to the futuristic The Heroic Trio (1993) also with Michelle Yeoh along with Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung. “Lethal ladies” and “battling babes” have dominated Chinese film stories for decades.
Women thrive as action heroes in Hong Kong cinema in a way that, until recently, hasn’t happened in U.S. films. However, feminism is not necessarily the reason why. Bey Logan writes:
While the gender politics within Chinese narratives such as wuxia pian do allow woman heroines, it is not because such narratives challenge patriarchy and Confucianism. Rather, the martial arts genre depicts Asian women as simultaneously heroic and traditional. This combination may confound certain western feminist perspectives, which see the two traits as mutually exclusive. Moreover, while women warriors offer an alternative to the stereotyped imagery held by westerners of passive Asian femininity, Orientalism still remains a framework for spectatorial perception. For these powerful Asian action heroes are simultaneously exoticized and fetishized.
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon manages a contradictory simultaneity. It shows the film’s stars as both powerful and fetishized, protagonists and visual spectacles. Ironically, such simultaneity has brought about polarized responses to the film. While the film text might successfully and skillfully contain such complexities in treating women warriors, the film’s reception is not easily controlled. That is, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been read differently in East and West, generally favored by the West but disliked by Eastern audiences. Considering Ang Lee’s reputation and awareness in producing “quality” films for a middle brow audience, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is simultaneously new and adapting a tradition. While the figure of the cinematic female action hero is well established in Asian film culture (Chinese in particular), the deliberate creation of a transnational film form is relatively recent for both Asian and Western audiences. Here I wish to lay out different contexts of reading and reception of the Asian female action hero (Eastern and Western broadly speaking). And I will conclude by drawing out potential implications of forging Asian female action heroes as a cultural commodity in a transnational film market
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was produced and marketed in quite a different way from the “chop sockies” imported in the 1970s from Hong Kong to the U.S. The latter were dubbed, clearly a foreign product, while Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was presented in Mandarin and subtitled for non-Mandarin speaking audiences as an art-house film (though it played in the multiplexes). Moreover, while the earlier martial arts films emphasized masculine stars (Bruce Lee stands as emblematic), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clearly gained attention for its female stars and the novelty of seeing women as martial artists. In Kenneth Chan’s recent essay on the transnational reading of women in martial arts as a generic mode, he identifies two main critiques of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. On one hand, cultural essentialists want a "true" representation of Chinese culture and its filmic history. On the other hand, anti-Orientalists argue against exoticizing one’s own and capitalizing on the popularity or fixation of an Orientalist gaze. (Chan sees this as a no-win situation.)
Such a spectatorial gaze is gendered, specifically focused on women. In their work on the three actresses — Anita Miu, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh — who star in The Heroic Trio series, Sheldon Lu and Anne Ciecko discuss how these and other films rely on the credibility of the action heroines’ status. Like the stars in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they carry a pan-Asian, intertextual, star persona from one film to the next. In an article previously published in JUMP CUT, Aaron Anderson also talks about gender performance of action. However, while Lu and Ciecko argue that female action heroines mark a crisis in masculinity (at least on the level of a particular storyline), Anderson studies the kinesthetic movement in action films as neither "masculine" nor "feminine" per se. He writes:
Such an observation supports my main argument that female action stars are able to occupy and act out in roles that are not singularly traditional.
The figure of the Asian female action star contributes to, yet also contradicts, an orientalist structuring of perceived femininity by western audiences. She is on one hand idealized and exoticized, but on the other, she resists the “lotus blossom”/“dragon lady” split paradigm. Furthermore, one must consider a dual perspective from the start: how the woman is made a hero in/by Asian culture, and how the woman is read as a hero in/by western culture. Why does the martial arts genre lend itself to the construction of women as heroes?
How is an action hero defined and made – narratively, aesthetically, and industrially – when she is an Asian woman? Furthermore, what happens in the transnational movement of genre and stars from Asia to the U.S.? Michelle Yeoh exemplifies such a star, as her work ranges from an impressive number of Hong Kong films including Yes! Madam (1985), Magnificent Warriors (1986), The Heroic Trio (1993), Supercop (1992), and Tai Chi Master (1993) to the U.S. blockbuster James Bond picture, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), to the Oscar winner, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) by Ang Lee. In Asian culture (and in Asian film), heroism is demarcated differently than in U.S. narratives.
Heroism is culturally specific. Where U.S. action films uphold rugged individualism, often extolling the “gumption” of renegade cops, those on the fringe of society, and proverbial (and literal) cowboys, heroes in Asian films are considered heroic because they place loyalty to another person, clan, or community above all else. Their heroism comes from the ability to do for others, not for the self; victory comes from sacrifice for the group, not from self-aggrandizement. The capacity to take action has implications beyond a single battle. In most Asian films, the driving force which impels the narrative has as its core issues of loyalty and honor. This can be observed in Japanese samurai films, and certainly also in Hong Kong martial arts films. Such narratives may be a magical swordplay drama, an historical kung fu story, or even a contemporary gangster gunplay film. As the veritable king of gunplay action film, John Woo, said of his groundbreaking film, A Better Tomorrow (1986) (which Logan believes is “a film that changed Hong Kong action film forever”):
The apotheosis of these two kinds of heroism comes with death. In Asian film, heroism usually means sacrifice, often to the death, and particularly for the lead character. At the end of U.S. action films, the hero almost always lives, victorious. (Sidekicks and supporting players may die, but rarely does the leading man.) The Asian hero proves her/his worth, her/his heroism, by living up to a filial pledge to a larger order, and heroic action is practiced for a higher ideal.
Martial arts themselves derive from philosophical tenets, most famously from the Shaolin Temple during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). There are three principle philosophical schools that influence the martial arts: Confucianism, with an emphasis on clan and social order; Buddhism, with an emphasis on compassion and transcendence; and Taoism, with an emphasis on the natural. All three schools emphasize that action is not merely a physical act. Martial arts training develops the body and the mind; to use martial arts is to engage in both a physical and a philosophical practice. While monks historically developed and trained in the martial arts, martial arts as a philosophy could be spread to anyone who wished to study and embrace it. Just as its “secrets” were taught to men beyond the monasteries, they could be taught beyond men. Because women thus have access to martial arts (though it is difficult and this struggle or usurpation is worked into many literary and filmic storylines), women have access to becoming action heroes.
The genre is suited to making women into heroes because their action is endowed and enabled through the philosophy of martial arts; women are “allowed” to have the power of martial arts. Moreover, because on a certain level martial arts embody Chinese values and culture, it is not only acceptable but honorable that women learn and perform them. In other words, the figure of the woman is a generic element of wuxia pian (swordplay films), her presence having historical and narrative precedent and her abilities having equal footing with men in these films.
Emerging as a genre in Shanghai in the 1920s, martial arts cinema has a long pedigree. It grows out of the historical existence of the martial arts, especially the famed Shaolin Temple; derives from modern Chinese chivalric literature; and has featured trained artists of the Peking Opera. The martial arts genre can be understood as having two main strands: kung fu (unarmed combat) and swordplay (using weapons, usually swords). Kung fu films were developed primarily in Hong Kong in Cantonese, while wuxia pian was the prerogative of mainland Chinese and Taiwanese producers, and generally made in Mandarin. The latter are period films, historical epics, mythological tales of magic, and colorful costume drama (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (Desser, 2000, p. 31). Gunplay makes up the third historical variant. It was made famous by John Woo in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is a contemporary adaptation of martial arts films, trading in swords for guns. In all three variants, women have played heroic roles, however limited. Sometimes women are merely sidekicks (no pun intended) and sometimes they are even excluded. But in those instances where women are present, and heroically present, it is worthwhile to examine how such heroes are produced and (re)presented, and how they are received and read.
Women might benefit more in this genre because the flexible presentation of realism enables women to take up fantastic, heroic, and dramatic roles in ways that other genres do not. Realism is relative in film, particularly when it comes to the martial arts film. Film is a form of narrative fiction, made up of a stream of photographed images. Ambiguously it is partly “made-up” but it also captures “real” moments – of people making speeches, actors doing stunts, the passage of time. So there is an ongoing, persistent experience in watching a film that is both “fake” and “real.” This combination of elements is heightened in the martial arts genre, where a hero is often one because s/he transcends realism. Whether it is because she can fly or has “palm power,” or whether she’s blowing up a building or shooting the bad guys, the protagonist's heroic act is heroic in spirit and character as much as in physical and metaphysical ability.
Even when special effects are employed, especially wirework — in which an actor appears to defy gravity during fight sequences, viewers generally are not distracted or upset. The characters’ ability to fly is already accepted within the genre. Fantasy abilities therefore become an accepted aesthetic value. Women and men equally are enhanced by special effects and by the fantastic elements present in the martial arts genre/action film genre. Magic also levels the playing field – martial arts skills and knowledge of its seemingly hidden mysteries are more important than brute strength and size. In the world of the martial arts film, magic, mysticism, and heroism are available to all its inhabitants.
For the spectator, the action genre's thrills come from feeling a visceral, cathartic response, sometimes a “jouissance.” Not unlike experiencing watching a musical, the viewer feels empowered, enabled, and elated. In this vein, John Woo’s films have come to be known as “balletic bloodshed” and he has expressed interest in directing a musical. Similarly, King Hu explained why he chose a ballet dancer, Cheng Peipei (not coincidentally, Cheng’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon co-stars Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are also trained ballerinas), to play his first fighting female lead:
The cinematic style of physical action that martial artists use is soft or dance-like action. The viewers sense a play between actual combat vs. representational combat. Anderson introduces a very useful concept to describe spectatorial response to martial arts action scenes, that of a reception continuum. He uses this concept to describe how the pleasure/ perception of a viewer is situated along a continuum of fantasy and reality. In addition, often the protagonist in Chinese action films is an underdog of some kind, which accentuates her/his abilities all the more, and which makes moments of victory even more thrilling.
Realism's aesthetic, and aesthetic power, has shifted in the history of the martial arts genre. The 1970s saw the aging of Mandarin cinema and Cantonese film also declined. Television rose up along with a new generation of directors who would eventually become the “New Wave” as they moved from television to film. There would be a generational and stylistic shift from Mandarin-originated, old-school production and genres to hybrid genres and a reclaiming of Cantonese (Teo, S., 2000, p. 107). While the New Wave films were not kung fu or action films, they dealt with a search for identity amidst “the China Factor,” as in Ann Hui’s Boat People (1982). (The “China Factor” represented the pending handover of Hong Kong to China by Britain, in the period after the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration until 1997.) The Hong Kong action films dealt with political issues and social anxieties more obliquely.
Several of the kung fu/action films alluded to the handover, including the famous hospital shoot-out among innocent and vulnerable people in John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992). The character Wong Fei-hung fights various struggles against the colonial British, the U.S. presence, and the Imperialist Chinese government in Tsui Hark’s series, Once Upon A Time In China (1991-1997). Tsui, well-known for assertive female characters in his movies, sees gender as a signifier distinguishing Hong Kong and Hollywood film sensibilities. Hollywood women, he says,
Thus, Rosamund Kwan’s character, “Auntie,” in his Once Upon A Time In China series is far from a withering flower. While not an action hero, she asserts her independence and demonstrates an adventurous spirit in the context of British colonialism in turn-of-the century China. Whether comedy, social realism, or kung fu, Hong Kong film regularly has featured the displacement of national anxiety onto national allegory.
Both internally, that is, textually, and externally, that is, industrially, films of the Hong Kong action genre have maintained a consciousness about the instability of identity, particularly during the last decade. Even despite the fantastic elements of action films, some kind of social realism was being expressed. Esther Yau writes:
In other words, the generic form itself acknowledges a shifting content (racial, national, and gendered identity) within a changing political and economic context. And it is within this context of post-colonial globalization that we can examine the figure of the woman warrior.
Like the action genre itself (expressing “The China Factor”), woman and the feminine often serve as allegory. Women often stand in for the nation’s suffering and oppression. Strength-hidden-as-weakness and the woman’s body often becomes emblematic of the body of the nation. Recent scholarship demonstrates that national imagery is suffused with gender politics. For example, Fu keenly explains:
I conjecture that this description might similarly apply to the woman warrior in the action genre: the Asian female action hero has functioned as an allegory asserting Hong Kong identity.
Caught between nationalism and postcolonialism, Hong Kong remains as Other to China. And yet, Hong Kong continues to be seen as "Chinese" – exotic and different, “exotic yet accessible” (Fu and Desser, 2000, p. 3) – by the West. And perhaps even more broadly than Hong Kong films, it is possible to view the figure of the woman warrior as allegorical in asserting a transnational Asian identity within an emerging global economic, political, and cultural environment.
An intra-national tension between mainland China and Hong Kong has fueled the "Hong Kong cinema" that viewers have seen internationally. However, most western viewers are not yet able to distinguish greatly between Hong Kong and China (or Taiwan for that matter). Films from these countries seem “foreign,” or more specifically, “Chinese.” Admittedly, these are not simple distinctions to make. Nevertheless, the western tendency has historically homogenized “the East,” or the Orient, as feminine. Orientalism genders Asia as feminine, whether in military maneuvers, economic and political policy, or representational culture. As I have written elsewhere, such Orientalism establishes dominance and hierarchy through discursive images; it creates hierarchical relations as well as justifies them. And one of the discursive properties of Orientalism is to render Asia conquerable, ownable.
Many western viewers and film critics have suddenly come upon the Hong Kong martial arts/action genre and too quickly placed the label “feminist” upon the films, perhaps as a way to read the films. Whether the western reading of films from Asia is cultural adaptation, acceptance, or appropriation remains in question. And in this genre of renewed popularity and favor, to what extent Asian action heroes are seen with a new understanding or are contained by an old Orientalist trajectory also remains an open question. Headlines for film reviews in the west include: “Crouching men, flying tigresses,” “Bad girls on film,” and “Girls get a kick out of martial arts” (Arnold, 2001, Goodwin, 2001, Harlow, 2001). What most western viewers may not realize is that women warriors are part of a long-standing tradition, and that while contemporary films (set in previous centuries) might be pro-woman, the film texts may not necessarily be feminist. How the woman is made a hero by Asian film, and read as a hero by U.S. audiences, will be the project of the following case studies of the films, Wing Chun (1994) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Simply because a woman is active, i.e., knows and performs martial arts, that does not necessarily make the act feminist, or make her a hero. A woman warrior is not always a hero. There are two characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon who embody this ambiguity — “Jade Fox” and “Jen.” Jade Fox, Jen's older mentor is depicted as an enemy for having killed Li Mu Bai’s sifu (clan member) and stealing the secret martial arts book from him. Though she is a fierce fighter, she is deemed evil for using her martial arts towards selfish ends. Jen represents more of the middle ground, vacillating between good and evil, displaying both self-centered obstinacy and conscious remorse. While a western viewer might read her character as a hero because she fights impressively and beats many men, she is not heroic according to the codes of wuxia. While western audiences might find Jen convincing though flawed and admire her “gumption,” Asian audiences might see her as disrespectful and dislike her presumptuousness. Interpretations of her taking up martial arts can also be read dissimilarly. Some western audiences might consider it is an act of rebellion and liberation, while some Asian audiences might perceive it as a miscalculated and failed learning. Nevertheless, all viewers see these two women characters as powerful.
There are three main women protagonists in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Yu Shu Lien, a trained warrior and gentlewoman working in her father’s security practice played by Michelle Yeoh; Yu Jiaolong (Jen), a high-born young lady arranged to be married but with an independent spirit played by ingenue ballet-trained Zhang Ziyi; and Jade Fox who turns out to be the arch rival of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) played by famed martial arts actress Cheng Peipei. All three possess the knowledge and skill of martial arts. They all also represent a societal struggle brought upon them because of they reachedd beyond more appropriate gender roles. Jen admires Shu Lien greatly for the “freedom” she possesses. Jade Fox, concealed as Jen’s attendant who has secretly taught Jen the secrets of the wudan manual, turns out to be a vengeful, “evil” enemy. The women's actions may be daring but contrary to a normative feminist interpretation, none is actually forging a rebellion against Confucianist, patriarchal society.
The action performed and perpetrated by the three women vary, each according to their character (and age), as well as to the way in which heroism is, or is not, bestowed. Jen is impetuous, over-anxious, and presumptuous – a brat. While innately talented, her motivation for combat is unclear and underdeveloped. Her moves are impressive but lack purpose beyond curiosity or mischievousness. This is why Shu Lien expresses sisterly compassion, and why Mu Bai offers to train her – lest she “become a poisoned dragon.” While showing ambition, Jen’s actions are offensive within contexts that are inappropriate (i.e., stealthy, masked fights). And she demonstrates a lack of understanding of the warrior (giang hu) code of ethics and way of life. Jade Fox, Jen’s mentor as it is revealed, uses martial arts in a way which goes against the code of ethics. Though revenge is part of the wuxia narrative tradition, Jade Fox is depicted as obsessed and embittered rather than having been wronged per se. She spews at Li:
Jade Fox equally threatens to kill Li. She breaks martial arts' honorable intention for good (and which can include avenging a death). She has learned, uses, and now teaches wudan out of anger and hatred and therefore, she is portrayed as an evil distortion of how martial arts ought to be used.
It is Shu Lien who acts unambiguously. She demonstrates restraint, maturity, and wisdom in the entirety of her martial arts, that is, when she is fighting and when she is not. Her moves are calm, defensive rather than offensive, and she expresses a transcendent awareness of what is at stake beyond the match, all the while performing spectacular feats. Her action is heroic because she accompanies the physical action with thoughtful and emotional consciousness. She is fighting for a higher purpose, for example to preserve honor (the “Green Destiny” sword) or to save face (for her host, and even for Jen). Lee brings this out by showing Shu Lien (as well as Li Mu Bai) as extremely calm, her moves smooth and low to the ground, while Jen sweats and pants, her energy (chi) spilling out and high as they fight. Furthermore, having pledged herself to the life of the xia (though not in the same “wandering knight” way Li Mu Bai has) as well as to her deceased betrothed, Shu Lien lives an acetic life that also awards her a heroic reputation.
A question arises as to whether the woman warrior must trade in her sexuality in order to be a hero. Jade Fox expresses her indignation at “not having been good enough to teach, but only to sleep with” when she explains why she killed Li Mu Bai’s master, and stole the book. She taught herself (though without understanding, Li declares) and she has lived a life of a so-called “bitter, woman” thereafter. As for Shu Lien, her relationship with Mu Bai is one of “silken restraint,” a gentle and platonic love. This might seem exasperating or implausible to non-Asian audiences, but it is part of a deep cultural expression of longing which is both pleasurable and full of desire in Asian culture(s). Unconsummated love can be as powerful as a torrid affair, even more so. In other words, Shu Lien is not without a sexual side. It is more her sense of honor to the memory of her deceased fiancé (who was Mu Bai’s brother-in-arms) than her being a warrior which prevents her from being with Mu Bai. She has a romantic life, she just doesn’t have marriage. At the film’s end, Shu Lien is left without a love relationship sealed; her future remains open (to a sequel).
Marriage, or at least arranged marriage, is actually portrayed as undesirable in the film, particularly as Jen runs away from hers. In that context, we learn that the young and sheltered Jen has had a dramatic romance (in the middle of the Gobi desert) with “Dark Cloud.” Remarkably, her return to her family after spending time in the desert with Lo (Dark Cloud) does not receive exposition in the film. That is, it is questionable whether her family would accept her back after being “corrupted” by being with such a man (a complete inferior, a “barbarian” beyond belief in terms of ethnicity, culture, class, and lifestyle). Moreover, it is doubtful that the aristocratic groom from the powerful Gau family would agree to marry Jen if he knew of this past experience. Jen’s decision to flee to Wudan Mountain, where Lo is waiting for her, signifies her separation from her family, former life, and social obligations. Must she give all this up in order to become a warrior? Just as her sexuality is newly released so are her martial arts abilities. It remains undetermined which way she’ll go – in terms of her social obligations as well as her becoming a warrior.
The genre too, remains “undecided” or multiplicitous in its ideological stance about women, let alone about “feminism.” Importantly, the women are heroes while also being "feminine." Unlike earlier attempts in U.S. films to establish women action heroes – Terminator 2, G.I. Jane, Alien – these Asian women do not have to become men or asexual in order to take up the role of hero. (Though there is often a cross-dressing element, if not simply from wearing skirts to wearing pants.) Neither do they have to die or be punished for being “active” as in film noir, or kill themselves as Thelma and Louise do in order to achieve bittersweet victory. Though expressing social struggles (Wing Chun is considered “unmarriageable” because she has learned martial arts), and though sometimes treated as deviant or evil (as are male villains in the genre), Asian women action heroes are not socially outcast, marked as "insane" or "lesbian" or "alien" like their U.S. cinematic counterparts because of their activity. And they are more than just cutesy or sexy as the protagonists in Charlie’s Angels (2000 and 2003) come across. In fact, it is their (Asian) femininity – while “kicking butt” – that seems most to appeal to many viewers.
One marker of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s transnational popularity and reception might be summed up by an U.S. film review title — “‘Tiger’ Packs Punches but Soothes the Beast with its Beauty” (Denerstein, 2000). Are viewers “soothed” by the fact that the heroes “packed with punches” are slight, Asian females? Or are viewers inspired by that fact? I think viewer response actually contains a little of both, and that it also varies from viewer to viewer. (It probably also varies according to gender. Even though women can objectify women, Orientalism usually has a sexualized component to it emanating from a male position of consumption). Orientalism as a structuring framework in the understanding of images of Asians and Asianess serves to “orientalize,” i.e., make quaint, containable, and exotic, the violent and/or heroic acts performed by Asian women. At the same time, there is legitimate awe in the spectacular feats these women warriors perform. It is important to consider whether awe of such a spectacle always includes sexualized or racialized objectification.
While not as gorgeous as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and though more clearly a Hong Kong kung fu movie as opposed to a "foreign art film," Wing Chun also features Michelle Yeoh, highlighting her great skill in martial arts. The film is based on the legend of wing chun, a southern school of kung fu which a nun taught a woman to fend off an unwanted suitor. The nun and teacher is played by Cheng Peipei (Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in a cameo appearance. The film emphasizes a kind of matriarchy in representing sifu and student as women. Wing Chun is characterized as a “tomboy,” often mistaken for a man by her dress and manner; yet the village people know and respect her while teasing her at the same time. She is considered “an old maid” and is shown only once reflecting regretfully on this. More important, however, she is the town’s hero. Indeed, she is famous throughout the region for fending off challengers and rescuing women from bandits. One woman whom Wing Chun rescues becomes indebted to her, even calling Wing Chun “her master.” The film is comedic in tone, and there is a bit of a Shakespearean mixed identity plot. In the end, though, Wing Chun remains the undisputed hero and also wins a man. She doesn’t necessarily “soothe the beast” (and in fact, beats him), but the action is light and exaggerated in style, thus rendering her action very entertaining.
Wing Chun fights with great wit and attitude. The scene in the tofu shop (balancing a large slab of sweet bean curd the entire time) is both spectacular and charming. As in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, her martial arts are infused with thought and “bite,” here because she is a woman fighting men who try to unnerve her by insulting her as “the weaker sex.” In fact, she is constantly challenged to duel/fight by men who are disturbed by her very reputation. So part of the pleasure of watching her stunts (a combination of wirework and acrobatic skill, directed by Yeun Wo Ping) is her defeat of sexist beliefs as characterized in her opponents. Unlike Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which portrays the fighting as beautiful, even perhaps too effortless, in Wing Chun one perceives the martial arts more viscerally, perhaps because the style of wirework is not erased. That is, part of the viewer's aesthetic enjoyment comes from the experience of suspending (so-to-speak) one’s disbelief at the same moment of acknowledging Wing Chun’s/Michelle Yeoh’s ability.
Furthermore, though portrayed and teased as “an old maid,” Wing Chun is not cast out of social life. Before the ending duel with “Flying Chimpanzee,” (she had earlier literally “burned” his brother, “Flying Monkey's precious jewels), Wing Chun goes to see her teacher who tells her: “Strength isn’t everything, you must have harmony in life.” She then adds, “Wing Chun, take my advice, find a man.” The viewer wonders if the teacher means Wing Chun needs to get married in order to be happy – but we later see that the teacher meant to “find a man” for the duel. Wing Chun, as the main character, has the most fight scenes throughout the film; moreover, her opponents are all male. Though her childhood sweetheart, Pok To played by Donnie Yen, displays martial arts skills of his own, in the end, it turns out that Wing Chun does not need him to win the final battle (except perhaps as a motivating force, as “someone to come back to” – this is what her sifu meant).
In his menacing challenge to Wing Chun, Chimpanzee says cockily, “If I lose, then I’ll call you mother … Choose your weapon!” When she selects the short knives, he taunts, “I’m afraid those pocket knives of yours will be no match for my majestic spear. You’re as good as married,“ to which Wing Chun replies, “You’re going to be my son, and not my husband.” They fight fantastically. Wing Chun draws him from fighting outdoors to inside a small hut, where she says, “Your long weapon has no use here.” Hers is a criticism and dismissal of his “lack” of ability or necessity in domestic space. Near the end of the battle, she remarks confidently to him, “My goodness, you’re persistent.” He loses, she wins; he ends up calling her “mother” in acknowledgment of her win, along with his gang of bandits as she walks away. The man did not have to help save her – in fact, he falls and kisses her feet when she emerges victorious from the duel with Flying Chimpanzee. The film ends in marriage for Wing Chun. The family is happy (her father – who is interestingly a widower – is relieved), the town celebrates, and Wing Chun wears a skirt for the first time. When she jumps on to her horse in a single leap, her new husband whispers, “Gentle.” Though it is a conventional, patriarchal ending, one does not get the idea that Wing Chun will suddenly stop being heroic.
The cross-cultural appeal of a film like Wing Chun mixes idealization and exoticization of Asian women (there are three major female characters, one clearly taking the “sex pot” role), and admiration and surprise at their (unexpected) “chutzpah.” Yeoh’s character is an indisputable hero narratively, physically, aesthetically, and ideologically. As in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film elicits a mixed reception/ reading of this fighting Asian femininity, at once categorized as novel and feminist, and at the same time, exoticized and romanticized in old Orientalist fashion. What is the difference between appreciation and appropriation, between respectful admiration and Chinoiserie? In this era of globalization and transnational capitalism in which film and popular images serve as currency, the figure of the Asian female action hero is highly marketable and thereby presents a powerful opportunity to assert (textually and industrially) an Asian self-representation.
Race, gender, national — and transnational – cinema, converge in the era of global capitalism. "Chinese cinema" is “tripolar”: Mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Moreover, Chinese national cinema has become a transnational cinema. As Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu points out, such transnational films are targeted primarily to non-mainland audiences and to international film festivals, and they are distributed outside of China. Filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige seem to have had to made stylistic and thematic choices (compromises, arguably) to cater to the tastes of international audiences for commercial success. Lu writes:
At the same time, as Chris Berry describes China, in the midst of a developing market economy the country is experiencing a “postcolonial reaction formation.” That is, on one hand China demands international attention; on the other, it then often dismisses those (novels, films, etc.) which are received well in the west as not “real” Chinese. Response in China to the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, might exemplify such "reaction formation."
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most successful foreign film in the U.S. history, earning “blockbuster” status by breaking the $100 million mark just before the Academy Award ceremony; however, the film has had low box office success in China. Though having a strong showing in some Asian countries like Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, the film’s performance in Hong Kong (where it made about $2 million) and especially in mainland China has been disappointing. Some sources (including the filmmakers/ producers) believe the low film attendance in China is because of VCD piracy and the government’s three-month hold-up during the vital first three summer months of the film’s release. Others argue that Chinese audiences were simply unaccustomed to Lee’s stylistic approach to wuxia pian, which followed in the King Hu tradition because they were not able to see the work of King Hu in the 1960s and 70s.
In invoking the romantic tradition in martial arts literature, Lee brings about an “uneasy” marriage, believes Stephen Teo: “The notion of a romantic martial arts picture, for better or worse, results in a conflict of styles” (Teo, S., 2000). Furthermore, he argues that Lee “has not grasped the quality of heroism and fully integrated it with his romantic premise.” By this, Teo means that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does not successfully offer a true wuxia hero in Li Mu Bai who, though he dies tragically, does not do so in a last heroic act; as for Jen, she is neither a typical villain, nor a hero, neither Dao nor Mo (good and evil). But, Teo holds the essence of heroism to a strict standard, the late King Hu. And rather than seeing Lee as pushing or innovating the genre, he instead acknowledges a tribute (“that is at times actually quite moving”) but one that lacks substance.
Like Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee might partially be criticized by (mainland) Chinese as being “inauthentic” and as offering up eye candy for the Orientalist gaze through his use of wuxia pian. Lu argues:
By this, Lu means that Zhang Yimou’s films cater to an Orientalist gaze while also offering different stories, heroes, histories, visions; and therefore they can be potentially oppositional too. That is, Hollywood for so long has imagined and concocted its own "China" and "Orient" that when films from Asia (re)present themselves, and are now gaining wide attention, it is a significant change. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has certainly garnered much attention.
Similar to a criticism raised against Lee, Lu argues that Zhang’s films are not made for a Chinese self-reflexive gaze, but for Western spectatorship:
Arguably, an exclusively Chinese audience has been decentered in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well. Furthermore, these kinds of films have a value and aesthetic appeal determined by judges of the west:
But does appealing to western tastes equal reinforcing “static images and worn stereotypes of Orientalism rather than deconstruct[ing] them”?
Moreover, the directors were conscious in their choice to feature female protagonists. Perhaps by featuring women as representative of Chinese culture in these cross-cultural efforts, the exchange could happen more easily. While male stars such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Jet Li are widely popular, it could be the women heroes who can close the gap between East and West in introducing the genre to new viewers beyond the young, mostly white males who make up the fan subculture. In this way, martial arts function as a kind of “cultural nationalism.”
Is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a “triumph of Chinese cosmopolitanism” or a “debasement to the traditional martial arts genre”? (Teo, L., 2001, p. 1). Ang Lee and his colleagues, in particular, James Schamus, were highly conscious of their cross-cultural project. Their goal for the screenplay wasn’t simple:
Based on the fourth novel in a series by Wang Du Lu, scenes were written in English by Schamus, revised in Chinese by Hui Ling-Wang and Kuo Jung Tsai, translated back into English, and then back into Mandarin, and then English-subtitled. Lee stated that it became their mission to break through the subtitles barrier, and hopefully get out of the art-house ghetto (Kirkland, 2000, p. S14). Lee has said that he grew up with subtitles, and so “it is only fair” to do the same to U.S. audiences, his wish ultimately being that of cultural exchange. The major talk about the film – besides the fight scenes – was the potential for a cultural crossover – to break into multiplexes. From the beginning, the filmmakers were aware of making a transnational cultural product through featuring women warriors.
Lee explains why he features female protagonists/women warriors:
Featuring women as representative of Chinese culture in this cross-cultural effort might have been what made this exchange happen (more easily). Spectacular women warriors attract viewer attention. Here this provides the opportunity to proffer not simply an exotic image to be consumed, but a complex and new self-representation of Asian identity.
Hong Kong cinema (“a cinema without a nation” and “a transnational cinema” as Fu and Desser describe it, p. 5) has always been an export industry. It could not have sustained itself by playing to the population of Hong Kong alone; therefore, it has a history of aiming for a wider audience. Furthermore, analogous to the attempt to appeal to a pan-Asian audience, the Hong Kong film industry has reflected the chameleon-like identity – some would say confused and ambivalent – of Hong Kong. Hong Kong can be understood as caught between nationalism and postcolonialism, situated tenuously batween China and Britain, as well as Taiwan. Moreover, it is also situated both geographically and historically in the middle of a global shift of economic and cultural power. The media industries of Asia represent (literally) such a shift. Globalization specifically refers to formally “Third World” countries, like Asian countries, now becoming world players through (media) technologies. This also results in the emergence of what Aihwa Ong calls the “modern, Pan-Asian subject” (Ong, 1999, p. 167) who is a figure that wields power and attention. The woman warrior is becoming such a global, transnational subject (rather than an Oriental object).
Hong Kong film fans (in Hong Kong) have been reserved in their evaluation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:
“For Hong Kong Chinese there’s simply not enough action,” says Maria Wong, a film executive in Hong Kong.
Stronger criticism has also been voiced:
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s article continues:
Why is it so unlikely – or undesirable – that it is the later? The article concludes a little more kindly:
Robert Marquand writes:
At the same time, he proposes the following:
If anything, Ang Lee is a diasporic filmmaker: he is Chinese, Taiwanese, Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian-American – all at once, and some more than others depending on the context and depending on who is categorizing him. All of his films are cross-cultural, bringing together family members and lovers across gender, generation, class, and national lines. Transnationality implies a flexible, diasporic citizenship. And diasporic identity is neither singular nor simple.
I agree with the idea (and the hope) that the new condition of transnational film culture “opens up prospects of critical intervention that were not available before” (Lu, 1997). I especially value Lu’s powerful, closing thought:
The market has opened wider, the “global village” is an inclusive place/space. Simply put, more people are seeing films from, by, and about China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Asian female action heroes are somehow extra-heroic because as women and as Asians they inevitably represent triumph over the status quo. Through the mechanisms of heroism, realism, and allegory available in the action genre, Asian women are offered to a wide-ranging, international audience as heroes – not just as delicate lotus blossoms, though they are that at times too.
Whether non-Asian audience can only or mostly see images of Asian culture and people through an Orientalist lens remains an open question. Nevertheless, there has been a significant cultural and industrial shift from the creation of the Oriental figure from the point of view of non-Asians (i.e., of whites), to forms of self-representation. It is a shift from America’s importing of “Oriental goods” from Asia, to Asia’s exporting of its own cultural product to the U.S. In his article on “the Asian Alternative” in film, Dave Kehr asks a challenging question about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: “Does the West love this movie because it is so profoundly Asian, or because it is not?” (Kehr, 2001, p. 1) The question that I would like to conclude with is: Can a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or filmmakers in Asia who have been accused of “self-Orientalizing,” appropriate Orientalism for their own use?
Two recent emergences can be added to the conclusion about a paradigm shift and the notion of self-Orientalizing. The first is the rise of a body of U.S. films featuring female action stars: especially Kill Bill (2003, 2004) in which Quentin Tarantino unequivocably pays homage to Hong Kong action and Japanese samurai films, and Lara Croft (2003), Elektra (2005), and the recent Aeon Flux (2005) in which Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Garner, and Charlize Theron are thoroughly physically impressive. (Theron apparently performs her own stunts, as Michelle Yeoh became known for two decades ago.) Chuck Kleinhans thinks we are experiencing a paradigm shift for women in action; I might add that this has been inspired by Asian female action heroes.
Second, in consideration of the fact that the intertextual star personas of Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, and Gong Li have been gathered together for the holiday release, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), I have to contain any optimism. I will reserve judgment of this film that capitalizes on a slew of Asian stars who have made it in the U.S. market (including Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai) until I see it. However, I am not so convinced that “self-Orientalism” as a strategy for (re)presenting Asian protagonists is possible when a non-Asian director in a purely Hollywood production context takes the reins. The forward trajectory of stars like Ziyi Zhang, who brought her self-reflexive high-kicking charm to a U.S.-style film like Rush Hour 2 (2001), has turned backward in Memoirs towards costume drama of the highest Orientalist order. Is this how westerners prefer to see Asian stars?
I would like to thank Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage for their editorial guidance, and Genevieve Fong and Eric Greenfeld for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
1. I am not an expert in Hong Kong cinema or the martial arts. However, I recognize Hollywood’s domination in the international film market and in film culture, and I observe and analyze how Orientalism serves as a framework in the reception of films made in Asia. My scholarly focus is in racial representation and feminism, and my work includes what I formulate as "New Orientalism," the transnational media form of which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a part.
2. I am making an effort to make the word "hero" gender-neutral by using it to refer to women and men instead of using the derivative form, "heroine."
3. Kenneth Chan, “The Global Return of the Wu Xia Pian (Chinese Sword-Fighting Movie): Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in Cinema Journal, Vol. 43, No. 4.
4. In Sheldon Lu’s book, China, Transnational Visuality, Global Postmodernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.)
5. Aaron Anderson, “Violent dances in martial arts films,” in JUMP CUT: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 44, Fall 2001.
6. A study of how Asian American audiences read and embrace Asian cinema, specifically the kung fu genre, would reveal relevant patterns of Asian American identity-formation and cultural pride. Their (our) response to the genre is veritably different than that of white audiences, I believe. I know from what students have told me, for example, that Bruce Lee played an important role in instilling a sense of masculinity and power for young Asian American men.
7. This often takes form in revenge for the unjust killing of a sifu, or a clan member.
8. The four cardinal virtues in Confucianism are these: filial piety, brotherly love, loyalty, and trustworthiness.
9. The primary inaugural text is Xiang Kairan’s Legend of the Strange Hero, published in Shanghai in the 1920s and taking film form for the first of many adaptations in the film, Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (1928).
10. Kung fu is a term used mostly in the west; Chinese call the genre wu dar (unarmed martial arts) or wuxia (armed, mostly with swords).
11. Like heroism, how realism is adapted in different historical and political settings reflects certain societal desires. This in turn, reflects cultural viewing preferences. For example, “fantastique” swordplay films infuse society with notions of magical escape from social constraints, while the classic wuxia pian emphasizes a traditional style of fighting along with traditional, Confucian values. And the romantic or melodramatic martial arts films feature female protagonists, often with mystical powers and romantic involvements. In recognizing the varieties of ways and contexts in which realism is represented, we can begin to understand the nuances and situations in which women can become action heroes, and under what philosophical or stylistic conditions.
12. And also as in musicals, the fact of choreography does not hinder (and in fact, facilitates) the fact of the performance: the dance is done.
13. L.S. Kim, “American Orientalism and the Political Aesthetics of National Identity,” forthcoming.
14. David Bordwell notes that within the universe of swordplay and kung fun, often “there is not an appeal to the law; the hero must wreak punishment on those who have wronged him; he must rely on his friends and his master, an overt father-figure. If his friend or his boss betrays him, he is plunged into despair but his vengeance will be fearsome” (42, Bordwell). In other words, heroism in Chinese swordplay tradition is outside the law, and perhaps this also is what enables women (in a Confucian and patrilineal society) to become heroes.
15. Lu also describes Zhang as possessing a “gifted ‘Oriental’ sensibility.”
16. Personal communication, 5 April 2001.
17. Interview with James Schamus, Spring 2001, Berkeley, California.
18. Chiang Kai-shek banned films that combined martial arts with magic (89, Stokes and Hoover).
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