In a previous post about Daredevil, I mentioned the fight scenes in Chinese action movies and how there’s actually a method to all the madness you see on the screen. That in the best Kung Fu movies, every fight means something and that the scenes are there to reiterate the basic themes and plot of the movie, to tell you who the characters are and what they believe and that this was the way the fight choreographers of Daredevil seemed to approach the show.
This isn’t a post about Daredevil, exactly, but it is related and it’s very long. Its for those of you who find it difficult to understand what all the hoopla is about those fight scenes, because to you, it just looks like a bunch of people smacking each other’s arms and kicking each other and why do people love these films, so damn much?!!!
This post will act as a primer on how to watch, what to expect and what, exactly, you are looking at (in Daredevil and some of the better Chinese Action films,) and why it’s there. Some of this comes from decades of watching Kung Fu movies and some of it is stuff I picked up from the commentaries of Bey Logan, Bruce Lee and interviews of other martial artists involved in film. (There are a megaton of books out there written by and about Bruce Lee. Please, check them out.)
We’ll start with an action film that is very accessible for people who have never watched Kung Fu or Wuxia movies before, with a fairly easy plot to understand: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
This is a recap and contains nothing but spoilers but even if you’ve never seen the movie you can read this first and then follow along while watching.
The title refers to the young girl in the movie named Jen, who steals Li Mu Bai’s sword, The Green Destiny. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are guards/ security specialists and Mu Bai has led a somewhat disreputable life, as something like a bounty hunter. Jen has heavily romanticized that lifestyle, wishes to experience it for herself and that is part of her motivation for stealing Li Mu Bai’s sword, which he has given away to her uncle, because he wishes to retire and live out the rest of his life with Shu Lien.
This is the introduction of the major players, their motivations, relationships to each other and the subplots that are generated out of those relationships.This gives the viewer a pretty good idea of who will be fighting who, and why. Remember, fights aren’t just people hitting each other. The fights represent a clash between opposing viewpoints/philosophies of life, and one can sometimes tell which viewpoint has won by who wins or loses a fight. For example, losing a fight in a Kung Fu movie may mean that your motivations for fighting, or the philosophies you are fighting for, are wrong.
There are four main players. Yu Shu Lien, Li Mu Bai, Jen Yu and Jade Fox. Therefore there are four main viewpoints/themes that drive the plot. Most of these viewpoints and motivations echo each other.
We are first introduced to Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien. At no point in the movie do these two fight each other. They do not have a contentious relationship or opposing viewpoints. Yu Shu Lien was once in love with Li Mu Bai’s (now deceased) best friend and while their love for each other isn’t forbidden, Mu Bai ahd Shu Lien have been withholding from expressing their true feelings for each other, out of deference to his friend’s memory.The want to be together but don’t feel they can because of the loyalties and obligations of their past. Shu Lien to her former lover and Mu Bai to his teacher, who was murdered by Jade Fox.
Whenever the two of them begin to even approach the subject of their relationship, they are interrupted by the plot. This is foreshadowing for a relationship that will never develop beyond the longing stage. (And really ,when you get down to the basic theme of this movie, it is all about “longing”, something which informs the motivations of every character in the film, no matter their personal philosophy.)
Next, we are introduced to Jen Yu and Shu Lien’s relationship. Jen worships Shu Lien and at one point declares that they are sisters. She longs for a close friendship with this woman she admires, but their relationship turns poisonous, when Shu Lien learns that Jen stole the Green Destiny. Shu Lien’s motivation is to retrieve the sword for Mu Bai, because it represents her love for him, she promised him she would keep it safe, and she is ashamed that it was stolen while under her guard.
Our first fight in the movie is between these two and occurs before they’ve been properly introduced, which is foreshadowing that their sisterly relationship is doomed to failure. Jen feels betrayed and hurt by Shu Lien, for revealing her identity to Mu Bai, and siding with him in trying to take back the sword, and return her to a life of marital obligation that she doesn’t want. Shu Lien feels betrayed for having trusted Jen.
The two women represent two clashing philosophies: of loyalty and obligation vs. freedom from responsibility and lawlessness. Of living to serve the community vs. living to serve oneself. Jen wants to live the kind of life she has romanticized in Shu Lien, and Shu Lien longs for the settled, married life, that she feels she cannot have with Mu Bai, and that Jen disdains.
So, the first fight in the movie is between Shu Lien and Jen Yu, between an agent of lawlessness and an agent of order.Their first fight is a draw. Neither one of the philosophies win, foreshadowing that neither of them can have what they want.
Also, pay attention to who is able to fly and who can’t. Jen and Mu Bai can fly, but Shu Lien, a grounded and pragmatic woman, doesn’t. This says much about her character. She can fly, but mostly chooses not to do it. Neither can Jade Fox or the security guard Bo. Whether or not characters can fly is an indication of their character. Mu Bai is a man of the highest thoughts and ideals. His thoughts are pure. Not necessarily right, though. It just means he’s thoroughly committed to them. Jade Fox is a lowly murderer, who has some skills and can jump very high, but cannot sustain the long flight that Mu Bai is so talented at. Her soul is too burdened with the weight of her evil acts. Jen is highly skilled and her ability to fly indicates that she is a much more innocent and unburdened soul than Jade Fox.
On occasion, you will come across seemingly evil characters in Kung Fu movies, that can fly. But flight is not necessarily an indication of purity of spirit. Sometimes it is sign of purity of thought or purpose. In Jen’s case, it is her spirit, which is still pure.
Next, we are introduced to Mu Bai’s quest, to avenge the death of his master, at the hands of Jade Fox. The relationship of Mu Bai and Jade Fox, is a subtler echo of Shu Lien’s and Jen Yu’s relationship. Mu Bai like Shu Lien, is a representative of order, and Jade Fox, like Jen, is an agent of lawlessness. Unlike Jade Fox, whom Mu Bai only wants to kill, Jen can probably be saved, which is Mu Bai’s secondary aim.
Incidentally, each character has at least one theme and one motivation. For Mu Bai and Shu Lien, the theme is the restoration of law and order. This is what they represent within the story. Their motivations are what prompt the decisions they make. That is their love for each other, with the additional motivations of vengeance and salvation, for Mu Bai.
This leads into the second fight in the film, which is about vengeance. There are several players in this fight. There’s a father (Tsai) who is trying to avenge the death of his wife, his daughter (May), and Mu Bai. All of them fight Jade Fox. There’s also a guard, (Bo) who is after Jade Fox because she’s an outlaw and he represents the theme of law and order, on Shu Lien’s behalf, but since this is a fight about vengeance, order plays no part in this brawl, and he is not allowed to play. He is quickly taken out of the fight and can only impotently observe. Incidentally, Bo is the only player who has no personal stake in the fight. He has no history with any of the other fighters.
Mu Bai’s fight with Jade Fox is interrupted by Jen, who jumps in, to defend her teacher. This is the first time she and Mu Bai meet and he is impressed by her fighting abilities. He could easily defeat her uses their fight to try to save her from Jade Fox’s influence . Mu Bai’s fights with Jen are about salvation, something that will play out later in the movie. He wants the sword but that is of secondary importance to procuring a worthy student and defeating Jade Fox. The sword is only of importance to Shu Lien and Jen and represents different things to each of them. For Jen, it represents freedom. For Shu Lien, it represents her love for Mu Bai. Mu Bai’s motivations have now been split three ways, between salvation, revenge, and love.
This four way fight is also the introduction of a new theme/subplot, of deception and betrayal, as Jade Fox observes Jen fighting Mu Bai, with skills Jade never taught her. Jade feels hurt and betrayed by the deception of her pupil. Once again, she is mirroring Shu Len’s sense of betrayal by Jen, now that Shu Lien’s other representative (Bo) has been removed from the fight.
During the fight, Jade kills Tsai. Once again this is foreshadowing for events that will happen later in the film and is a statement about how the pursuit of vengeance, over more peaceful objectives, is never a good thing. Like Mu Bai, instead of settling into a quiet life to mourn his wife and raise his daughter, Tsai decides to pursue his wife’s killer, placing his love for his daughter and dedication to law and order secondary to his need for vengeance, and he pays for that decision, with his life.
Take note, that Jade’s past will inform her future behavior towards Jen. She felt betrayed by Mu Bai’s teacher, who refused to teach her the more advanced Martial techniques she wished to learn. Jen not telling her or teaching her about her advanced skills, feels like yet another betrayal to Jade.
Later, when Jen finds out about the death of Tsai, she is ashamed of what she’s set in motion and rejects Jade Fox. Jen makes a lot of final decisions based on shame and guilt. She decides to return the sword out of guilt. She cannot decide what she wants and waffles back and forth between her motivations, throughout the film. Mu Bai, sensing this, is waiting for her and tries to talk to her again, but once again, she runs away. She is not ready to commit to either philosophy.
There is a long interlude where we see why Jen Yu feels the way she feels. She is in love with a young man (Lo) that she cannot have. Shu Lien sees the echo of her relationship with Mu Bai ,when she captures and talks to Lo, after he interrupts Jen’s wedding ceremonies. Shu Lien can see that he loves Jen and feels a great deal of sympathy for both of them, but nevertheless, advises Jen to fulfill her obligation to her family and stay with her husband. Shu Lien chooses duty before love. This is the beginning of the break in their friendship.
Jen steals the sword again and runs off to live what she thinks is the fighting life. This is the fight in the restaurant, fighting a bunch of low-skilled miscreants. She wins the brawl very easily, and in grand style, but she realizes it is ultimately pointless, as her opponents were not worthy of her fighting skills. She gains no satisfaction from defeating them, or achieving the lifestyle, she’s always longed for. This realization makes her bitter and angry because she expected more.
She goes to Shu Lien for solace. Shu Lien is angry with her for stealing the sword again and running away. Once again, we see her choose obligation over love, and it almost costs Shu Lien her life. She tries to talk Jen into going back home and fulfilling her duties, but this is not what Jen wants to hear and she rejects her. This is their second fight and represents the complete breakup of their friendship. Unlike their first fight, this one doesn’t end in a draw, but in blood. Jen survives this fight because Shu Lien is not actually trying to kill her, while Jen has no such restrictions.
Mu Bai saves Shu Lien from Jen, but he also saves Jen from becoming a fugitive and murderer, just like Jade Fox. This is their second fight and he almost wins her over, but she longs for the sword so much that she is willing to endanger her life for it, as we’ve seen throughout the film. She is kidnapped by Jade Fox after she retrieves the sword again.
In the third and final fight between all these characters, final decisions by all the characters get made. Jade Fox, being the villain, would naturally choose vengeance (she hates everyone, including Jen), and is killed by Mu Bai but Li Mu Bai also loses his life. He made the decision to avenge his teacher’s death and pays for that choice. Had he decided, instead, to confess his love for Shu Lien and settle down with her, Jade Fox would never have had the opportunity to kill him and this would have been a very short film. He dies in Shu Lien’s arms and now she has a choice to make. She’s full of rage at Jen and could easily kill her, but because she loved Mu Bai, and knows that isn’t what he would have wanted, she chooses compassion instead of vengeance, and sends Jen away, to be with Lo. She gives Jen the one thing she can now never have.
But Jen and Lo cannot be together either, because of the events that occurred through Jen’s actions. Had she not made any of the decsions she made, there wouldn’t be so many dead, something that weighs on her very heavily. Consumed with shame and guilt, she kills herself, by jumping off a bridge. Once again we see a character make a choice that leads to their death. (Except she can fly, so she might not actually be dead.)
Shu Lien and Lo are the only characters who choose love over obligation and they are the only survivors, but its pointless, because neither of them can have what they longed for, either. They made their choices too late to bring them any happiness, having allowed their duties and obligations to take precedence.
Once again, the overriding theme of the movie is obligation vs. freedom ( with both of these philosophies losing out to love) and every fight in the movie represents these two competing philosophies. Those characters who place all other obligations above choosing love or life, lose their lives.
Just like the template of the movie, each one of the fights has an introduction, a middle and finale. For example, in the four way, second fight, the characters actually introduce themselves and state why they’re fighting. The fight ends with Tsai’s death. In the third fight, Jade Fox states why she is fighting, at the beginning, what her true intention is, in the middle, and it ends with her death.
So, while it may seem that all this kicking and punching is just a bunch of pointless noise, the fighting, in the best of these movies, has a purpose and is much more complex than people simply beating the snot out of each other. Even the different styles of fighting and what weapons are used often says something about the characters and what they believe. But that’s a post for another occasion.
And yeah, okay, sometimes… sometimes it’s just people kicking each other.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is available on Netflix.
ETA: Since I’m human and fallible, (and by no means an expert on Chinese Action Films) any mistakes in this narrative are entirely my own. Let me know, in the commnents, if you have questions or corrections.