As a general rule, popular entertainment—including Asian entertainment—is oriented around enforcing gender norms and traditional values. Hollywood and Asian movies reflect the values of the cultures they are produced in, and are often focused on enforcing norms of white and male supremacy. In Asian films, issues of whiteness are obviously not present, but issues of male supremacy are front and center. In particular, “knight errant” tales, which revolve around a solo adventurer looking for escapades to get into, reflect patriarchal and sexist norms, with men depicted as heroic and daring and women portrayed as sex objects or items to be fought over, assuming they figure into the plot at all. However, there are a handful of works that transcend these regressive values and grimy clichés and offer women considerably more agency. One of these works is Ang Lee’s action film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This film has a more nuanced and complex depiction of women then the average wuxia film, giving them agency and roles beyond that of sex objects and personal property to be tussled over by the male lead characters. In this, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon goes above and beyond to become a true classic of Asian cinema and a rare work that does not reinforce moldy stereotypes about Asian people.
Martial arts films have historically been one of the most regressive genres of Asian film when it comes to the depiction of women. The genre’s conventions as a transplant of the European knight errant tradition in Asian culture depict men as flawless heroes with superhuman strength who outwit their enemies both with their martial arts prowess and their intelligence. Women rarely if ever have a significant role to play in these films, and when they do, they’re depicted in the usual weak stereotypes of Asian women: submissive, demure window dressing. The films of Bruce Lee and other major martial arts stars all adhere to this basic rulebook, with few if any exceptions, and given the influence Lee and his ilk had on the genre, they helped establish the demure doormat woman as an unshakable archetype in Asian film. It took several decades before Asian directors began daring to break this mold by giving women more dynamic and fulfilling roles, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon one of the standouts in this respect. Indeed, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may be the best example of an Asian film that shatters conventional gender roles and deftly avoids stereotypes, allowing Asian women a role beyond passive objects for men to play tug of war with.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon breaks the mold almost immediately when it begins, as it features a woman, Yu Shu Lien, in the role of a warrior and bodyguard. This in and of itself is a novelty because women in wuxia films are rarely given roles as fighters, and when they are, the portrayal is usually negative, depicting them as adversaries of the protagonist. However, Yu Shu Lien is given a positive, nuanced portrayal as a skilled bodyguard and a loyal servant. At the same time, Lee doesn’t go overboard and depict Yu Shu Lien in an unrealistically positive fashion, as other directors might do in order to overcompensate for the misogyny of previous movies in the genre. She is portrayed as a flawed woman with her own vices and who makes mistakes, making her definitively human and not a cardboard cutout. This depiction of a female warrior as an honorable, skilled yet flawed character is unique in Asian cinema and is worth pointing out on this basis alone.
Furthermore, while Shu Lien is not the primary protagonist of the film—that goes to Chow Yun-fat’s character Li Mu Bai—she is depicted as an equal with Mu Bai and not subservient or otherwise submissive. The two characters have a budding and complex romance, but their relationship is one that is egalitarian, in which each character pulls their own weight and can hold their own, whether it is on the battlefield or in the bedroom. Virtually all romances depicted in wuxia films are one-sided affairs, with the female lead expected to blithely go along with the male protagonist and be acted upon by him, instead of acting on her own as an autonomous individual.
Shu Lien is nothing like this. She has the freedom to carve her own destiny and take her own path, which is what makes her relationship with Mu Bai all the more poignant and meaningful. Because she is not forced into a relationship with him, it makes the fact that she chooses to fall in love with him all the more poignant. Without free will, the outcomes of human events are meaningless. The mere fact that Shu Lien has agency when it comes to love and relationships is part of why her romance with Mu Bai is meaningful and significant. Theirs is not the vulgar relationship of a man dragging a woman back to his cave by her hair after clubbing the bad guy, but a true partnership of equals, in which man and woman have their own wants and desires that matter just as much as the other. There are very few romances in Asian cinema which have the depth and poignancy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s relationship between its protagonists, and the fact that Shu Lien has agency is the reason why.
Another example of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s positive portrayal of women can be found in the character of Jade Fox. One of the film’s antagonists, she is given a more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal than the average female villain in Asian cinema. Evil women are often depicted in these types of films as vile hags who are completely irredeemable. However, Jade Fox is given a good deal of humanity in the movie, transforming her from merely a villain into a character that the audience is capable of empathizing with to a certain degree. In effect, she too is given a certain degree of agency, distinguishing her from typical female villains in Asian cinema.
Another female character of note in the film is Jen. Her interactions with Lo, her secret love, form one of the film’s most significant and moving character arcs. Their initial interaction sets the tone: Jen pursues Lo after he steals her comb, but after attempting to fight him, she succumbs to his charms and ultimately sabotages her arranged marriage for his sake. This is, again, a significant departure from the structure of wuxia cinema, in which women are objects that are to be acted upon by men. Jen’s and Lo’s relationship is similar to that of Mu Bai’s and Shu Lien’s in that both characters are equals with equal agency and who are both given the freedom to act as they wish. Indeed, Jen’s detonation of her arranged marriage later in the film almost seems as if it was put there to mock the characterization of women in other martial arts films. Jen rejects the man she was betrothed to by her family against her will and chooses Lo, a man she freely interacted with, pursued in search of her stolen property, and ultimately fell in love with. She is allowed to choose who she loves in the context of the film’s structure, a groundbreaking achievement in a film of this type and a full-throated rejection of the types of female characters typically found in these movies.
Some may argue that the characterization of women in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon represents patriarchy and suppression of women in another way. Instead of being forced into roles as subservient sex objects, the women of the movie are made into “active” sex objects in that they play a larger role in the story but are ultimately still there for male gratification. This ignores the fact that the film’s two most significant female characters, Jen and Shu Lien, are afforded choice in how they interact with the world of the movie. They are not made subservient to men and in the context of the plot, are given choices as to how they proceed and what men they end up with. It is precisely because of that that their choices in the story are meaningful and carry pathos. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a rarity among films of its genre because it gives women equal billing and importance with men and regards their choices and actions to be just as significant. Anyone who tries to brush this argument aside is missing the point.
At the end of the day, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a standout in Asian cinema for its portrayal of women. It deftly tosses aside stereotypes of Asian women as submissive, even making fun of them at points, and turns its female characters into fully-realized, fully fleshed-out beings with autonomy and agency. In this, the movie stands head and shoulders above most Asian cinema. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does something that almost no movie with Asian characters does: it depicts Asian women as complete and total human beings.