Women of Speculative Fiction: Shu Lien and Jen

When I first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it presented a world that was entirely new to me. I had almost no familiarity with martial arts films or Chinese cinema (I still don’t have much, honestly), and I had to glean what understanding I could through context clues.

I absolutely loved it. I’d probably have fond memories of it in any case, since my husband and I saw it in the theater for one of our first dates, but it turned out to be an almost perfect date movie. Action-packed, breathtaking stunts and visuals, as well as a strong emotional core and powerful themes. Tragedy, humor, romance…and several very memorable female characters.

One of the strongest motifs of the film is that of duality, particularly the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. The two main female characters represent these extremes, and the cost of each. Shu Lien is a model of restraint and decorum, to the point that she has denied herself any chance at a life with the man she loves. As they grow old, they begin to regret that they adhered so strictly to the rules of propriety keeping them apart.

But nor is the opposite the ideal. Jen is rash, impulsive, acting on her emotions with very little thought. She has an impassioned romance with a desert thief, but her fraught emotions imperil any lasting happiness with him. The answer, it seems, must lie somewhere in the middle, seeking a balance between thoughtful restraint and emotional impulse.

Oh, and also? These women are incredible fighters. Just look at this, and this. Phenomenal.

In the world of the film, only men are permitted to train in the mystic, gravity-defying skills taught at Wudan Mountain. It’s not explicitly stated where Shu Lien learned to fight, but Jen learned secretly from the bitter woman Jade Fox. Even her apparently straightforward villainy seems a bit more sympathetic when she points out the hypocrisy of Wudan using women as whores but not allowing them to learn their teachings. Her relationship with Jen is like a distorted mirror of the girl’s growing friendship with Shu Lien. Jade Fox and Jen might be teacher and student, but they don’t trust each other at all, and betrayal is at the heart of their connection. Shu Lien, meanwhile, recognizes in Jen what she could have been, and feels a pressing need to guide her to something better. Thanks to Jen’s pride and volatile emotions, their relationship is incredibly rocky, but all the more compelling for it.

The film probably raises more questions than it answers. What role does Jen really play in all of this? Hero, villain…a soul in need of saving? What does the ending of the film mean? (I won’t get specific, for the sake of not spoiling it, but it’s pretty surreal.) Was Shu Lien right or wrong in her choices? Is there any hope for a woman’s happiness in a society that constricts her so much? But those questions are so much fun to explore, and the film is always worth a re-watch. It doesn’t matter if a movie is in a foreign language with a wholly unfamiliar landscape of culture and storytelling – if it has female characters like these, I will love it forever.

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