American Gods Season One: Git Gone

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This episode is all about Laura and it’s a pretty good episode. I enjoyed it. I initially thought it would be rather boring because I wasn’t particularly interested in Laura Moon. I’m still not a huge fan but I like and understand her a little bit more. In the book, Laura has no backstory. We hardly know anything about her other than Shadow loves her, and she cheated on him with his best friend. So kudos to Bryan Fuller for fleshing her out for the show, and making her as richly complicated as any female character I’ve ever seen, on TV.

I don’t want to get into diagnostic behavior but Laura shows all of the Classic signs of clinical depression. She’s low energy, she’s got no hobbies, she’s bored, sad, and at one point tries to commit suicide in her hot tub,using a bug spray called Git Gone. She’s looking for meaning. She’s looking to believe in something. Depression is often signified not so much by not wanting to do something, so much as just not caring about what you’re doing.  Much of the decision making on Laura’s part arises out of boredom, and apathy, and I understood that.

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Laura at the Casino

She works in what some people consider the most exciting place on Earth; Las Vegas, as a dealer in a cheesy, Egyptian themed casino. For Laura,  it’s just any other old job until Shadow walks in, and tries to scam money from her Blackjack table. Like Wednesday, Shadow lived his life conning people out of their money. She warns him against that, and  afterwards, he approaches her in the parking lot,  to thank her. She takes him home with her, they have sex, and begin a relationship. One of the clues I had for Laura’s sense of apathy is she goads Shadow into being rough with her. This means she’s looking for excitement. For something to break up the endless tedium of her life. She takes home a stranger she knows is a criminal, so perhaps she was hoping he would kill her.

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Rob and Shadow

Over the four years they’re together, Shadow meets her friends, a couple named Robbie and Audrey, and they become Shadow’s friends too. Robbie offers him a job at his gym, and Shadow is happy. Shadow, as it stands in the narrative right now, has no backstory. As far as we can tell, he’s all alone. His mother is dead (or so he believes) and he doesn’t seem to come from anywhere, and appeared to be going no where in particular,when he met Laura. Laura becomes his home, and he cares deeply, not just about her, but the idea of her. He idealizes her and she is perfect in his eyes. Shadow isn’t just in love with Laura, he’s in love with being in love, as he really doesn’t know a whole lot about her. In other words, he BELIEVES in Laura, even after he finds out about her infidelity. I think this is what allowed the coin to resurrect her.

The first time Laura approaches Shadow, with the idea that she is unhappy, he doesn’t understand. He simply took it for granted that she was happy because he was happy with their life. She tries to explain that she is depressed but she can’t articulate this to him. She  tells him that it’s not him, but I don’t think Laura fully understands what she’s experiencing either. She knows she’s supposed to be happy, but she isn’t. And she wants to be.  So when we catch her asking Shadow to bring home bug spray, we know her depression is in full force again.

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Instead of suicide, she decides that criminal enterprise is the way to make her life exciting this time. She comes up with what she thinks is a full proof plan for robbing the casino. Shadow initially balks at this (We can see where his reaction to Wednesday robbing a bank comes from. That he ultimately goes along with Wednesday’s plan, proves that Shadow hasn’t learned his lesson, or he actually really trusts him. Pick one!) but he goes along with Laura because he thinks it will make her happy.

It all goes horribly wrong.

Shadow ends up in prison, where Laura says she will wait for him. She does wait, and tells her friends she’s waiting, but Laura is still bored and depressed. One way to alleviate her boredom, if not the actual depression, is to fuck her best friend’s husband. So she begins an affair with Robbie. She keeps saying she wants to break it off but keeps sleeping with him anyway. it the only thing she has to alleviate her ennui.

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All of this is carefully watched over by Hugnin and Munin, Wednesday’s ravens. They’re present at every stage of Shadow and Laura’s relationship; at the barbecue where Shadow meets Robbie, they’re watching from the roof; when Shadow goes off to work they’re watching from the street lamps; when Laura and Robbie have their fatal accident, the birds are following their vehicle. Which means Wednesday didn’t just meet Shadow by chance. He’s known about him for a very long time, although whether or not he caused the car accident is still uncertain. I do wonder if Wednesday had something to do with the heist that went wrong, that landed Shadow in prison, to be conveniently watched over by a man named Low Key (Loki) Liesmith. 

Because Laura believed in nothing, but worked in a casino dedicated to Egyptian gods, it’s  Anubis who comes to retrieve her when she’s dead. She refuses to cooperate with him, she doesn’t want her heart weighed. She wants to be sent back home,  but he tells her she will go into darkness instead. She asks if there will be peace but he doesn’t say, and before he can make her climb into the representative hot tub, in which she tried so often to kill herself, she gets snapped back to Earth when Shadow drops his lucky coin on her grave.

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Laura kicks ass.

Laura crawls out of her grave and is understandably mystified by her return. She sees a beacon of light in the distance and follows it until she comes upon Shadow hanging from the tree, surrounded by his assailants. So it’s Laura who was Shadow’s mystery savior. She discovers she is incredibly fast and strong as she easily bludgeons Shadow’s attackers, then  jumps into the air, and pulls him down. She does lose her arm, though. Unable to face Shadow in her bloody state she eventually finds her way to Audrey’s home.

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I’m still not entirely certain exactly what Laura felt for Shadow. Audrey claims she treated Shadow like a pet, but Laura insists that even if she didn’t love Shadow before, she certainly loves him now, and that appears to be the case. Laura finally BELIEVES in something. In someone. Like she’d always been searching for when she was alive. And remember, in this world,  it’s all about belief. This makes me wonder how her belief in Shadow will express itself in his life. Because all it takes is for just one person to be thoroughly convinced that Shadow is special.

Audrey is freaked out to discover a dead woman, in her house, walking and talking. I love the relationship between these two. They say exactly the kinds of things you expect two such people to say, and are fairly blunt about it. Audrey handles the situation like a boss. I still don’t like her for trying to rape Shadow, but she’s not actually evil. Like Laura, she’s complicated, and so is their relationship.

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Laura and Audrey on a road trip.

Laura convinces Audrey to take her on a road trip but that is interrupted by Anubis and Mr. Ibis. The two of them run a funeral home and they take Laura there and patch up her decaying body, reattaching her arm and giving her a lifelike glow. One of my favorite moments was Anubis low key dragging Laura, while he fixes her up. She gives him the side-eye because shes not sure if he’s being funny. He also says he’ll be there to collect her when her task is over.

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Laura waits for Shadow.

Shadows presence in the world appears to Laura like a beam of sunlight moving in the distance and she is compelled to follow it. I think it’s hilarious that Shadow looks like his name to her. A “Shadow Moon” is basically another term for eclipse, and that’s what he looks like to her, a shadow that’s surrounded by beams of light. Laura eventually makes it to Shadow’s motel room. One of my favorite images is Laura’s point of view of Shadow walking towards her, his light getting brighter and brighter, outlining him in a yellow corona, as he steps into his motel room.

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American Gods Season One: Head Full of Snow

 

 

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Anubis

The title of this one is a reference to a scene from the book, when Wednesday tells Shadow to think of snow, but we begin this episode with an introduction to the Egyptian god, Anubis. In the books his name is Mr. Jaquel, and he runs a funeral home with Mr. Ibis (Thoth). Everything I know about this character, I know from a book on Egyptian mythology, and a mediocre episode of Supernatural. Here he is doing his job as a psychopomp, which is a spirit which guides souls to the afterlife, guiding Ms. Fadil to her final fate.

Anubis job is to weigh the evil of the soul, by weighing their heart against a pure white feather. If the soul was heavier than the feather, than the soul was devoured by a demon and destroyed. If the soul is lighter than the feather, than the soul is allowed to move on to the next phase of its existence, in the land of the dead. Ms. Fadil is accompanied by her hairless sphinx, a representative of the goddess Bastet. Bastet was, for a short time, considered the wife of Anubis, and was a Warrior, and Protector of the pharaoh.

 

Anubis usually wears white but Mr. Jaquel shows up at the door wearing black, but still doesn’t look remotely disreputable. I think it’s interesting how they bluntly recognize Ms. Fadil’s anti-blackness. So the showrunners are gonna go the whole route, not just  contrasting how immigrants were treated vs. Black Americans, but  they are  not shying away from the acknowledgement that a lot of immigrants adopted racism towards Black people, as a way to achieve  the privileges of Whiteness.This is a level of honesty I wasn’t expecting as almost  no one in America acknowledges intra-racial discrimination. (That is discrimination and prejudice among PoC towards each other.)

Shadow and Wednesday 

Shadow wakes up after losing his game with Czernobog, and goes to the roof, where he finds the third Zorya sister, also called The Midnight Star. In mythology, there are really only two Zorya sisters, one who opens the gate to let her father rise into the sky in the morning, (The Morning Star) and one who closes the gates when he sets in the evening (The Evening Star). Neil Gaiman and the showrunners simply added the Midnight Star to the other two, and made it her job to watch the heavens at night to make sure that the “great bear” ( Ursa Major) is still chained in place. If he should ever get free, (if the heavens should fall, or the stars go out)  it would be the end of the world.

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This sister gives Shadow a coin, she says,  to replace the one he lost. She plucks the moon right out of the sky and hands it to him, in the form of a silver dollar. (Shadow is being given the sun, the moon, and the stars, right?) This is  something that happens in the book, but you can still get some idea of the showrunner’s sense of whimsy. (This episode was directed by David Slade, who also worked on Hannibal, and he has a rather cheeky visual sense.) Zorya #3 tells Shadow it’s for luck. Shadow wakes the next morning believing he dreamt her, as there’s no way to reach the roof from the apartment, but  feeling lucky, he challenges Czernobog to another checkers game, and wins this time. Czernobog is now obligated to support Wednesday before he can kill Shadow. It’s a testament to the director’s skills that he can make a game of checkers so exciting.

It was pointed out to me, by an astute fan on Tumblr, that this is the second or third time Shadow has been sexually assaulted by a White woman, on the show. Robbie’s wife, Audrey, attacks Shadow in the cemetery, as revenge against her late husband. She tries to get him to have sex with her, grabbing him, pulling at his clothing, and pushing him, while Shadow refuses her overtures. The Zorya sister kisses him without his consent, although she does give him a kind of warning, telling him she wants to be kissed. Her other sister, after Shadow gives her the romance novels Wednesday insisted he buy, blushes nervously in his presence, and Media offers to show him Lucy’s titties.

The OP wondered if this hypersexualization of Shadow was because he was a Black man, although she was also worried that the show was making white women look racist, as so far, Shadow has had no interaction with any WoC (although, I think Laura is Latina.) I’m not certain it’s the second, but I’m fairly sure that these women’s reactions to Shadow has something to do with his secret identity, and his relationship to Mr. Wednesday. I was too busy geeking out over the shows imagery to pay close attention to much of anything else. (I’m just glad Fuller has another show on TV.) If we see WoC act like this way towards Shadow, then my theory may be correct, and if they don’t, then the writers are making some other point.

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While Shadow is visiting with the youngest Zorya, Wednesday is putting the moves on the eldest sister. It’s obvious the two of them are long familiar with each other, and she is both annoyed and charmed by him. She likes him but she worries. Everytime she sees Wednesday, she knows there’s going to be trouble, and she predicted Shadow’s death. The two go out for a walk and it begins to storm. Again! There’s a lot of storm imagery in the show, and over time, the astute watcher will begin to understand why. No, Wednesday is not the one responsible, even if he was ready for it.

Speaking of Wednesday, I understand from Tumblr,  that a lot of people were really confused about the lynching imagery in the last episode, and were puzzled at Wednesday’s offhand attitude, when Shadow confronted him about what happened. Shadow’s reference to Strange Fruit is a shout out to the song made famous by Billie Holliday, about the lynchings of African-Americans in the South. The lynching imagery is a very deliberate statement, directly related to Shadow’s relationship with Mr. Wednesday (which is why Technical Boy chose that particular method of killing.)

I’m trying really hard not to give away Shadow’s secret for those who haven’t read the book. (For reference on Mr. Wednesday, you need to read The Prose Edda, to understand why the symbol of hanging is so important.) No, the writers aren’t simply being insensitive. I know from Fuller’s work on Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and Hannibal, that he likes to write a lot of foreshadowing and symbolism into his work. Like Joss Whedon, Fuller likes to make his series one long story, with lots of callbacks to previous episodes, (so if you skip a season, you won’t know what the hell is going on.) We will see this imagery again in a later season.

Poor Shadow! Since he’s been employed by Wednesday, he’s been in a barfight, been beat up, sexually assaulted and lynched. (There’s a scene of him having his wounds tended after the lynching. Remember the, now stapled wound, in his side. It’s important.) At any rate, by the end of the episode, he does not appear to be suffering any pains from his wounds, although to be fair, I don’t know how many days its been. It is understandable that he’d have just a tiny bit of resentment towards Wednesday. Personally, I would have quit the job, but I’m more of a scaredy cat than Shadow.

Shadow has lots of discussions with Wednesday about belief. In the last episode, Wednesday was rather nonchalant about Shadow’s belief that he was going insane because Lucy Ricardo propositioned him. Wednesday’s attitude is always, “If you believe it, then it’s real. If you don’t believe it, then it’s not real, and you are going  insane.” He makes this statement to Shadow several times because, as a god himself, belief is everything. For Wednesday belief determines reality. He makes it clear to Shadow that being forgotten is the worst possible thing that could happen, worse than insanity.

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Shadow does not have this particular reaction in the book. That version of him is much more relaxed about meeting gods and goddesses.  I like that this Shadow  questions and challenges Wednesday. I love the chemistry between the two of them, and I like that this  is not an easy relationship, as the two of them continually chafe at each other. Wednesday behaves towards Shadow like an indulgent uncle,  and Shadow knows Wednesday is a liar, so he’s often exasperated with him, but there’s also a part of him that really likes and admires Wednesday.

Shadow isn’t a stupid man. He’s knows something is going on, but he’ll never understand what’s happening, if he refuses to believe in any of it. It doesn’t help that all of the people he’s met don’t just come right out and claim to be gods. As Wednesday tells the elder Zorya, “I’m easing him into it.”

Salim and the Ifrit

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This scene is taken, almost shot for shot, from the book, and it’s an introduction to the Ifrit, giving us his backstory on how he came to drive a taxi. Salim is an  unsuccessful salesman from Oman, trying to make money on behalf of his brother. The two of them recount to each other their misery in America, and after Salim discovers the djinn’s secret, and reaches out to him, to two of them share a sexual interlude. Afterwards, the djinn leaves, taking Salim’s clothes and plane ticket. He leaves Salim his clothes, taxi, and driver’s license instead. Salim sees this for the opportunity it is. He quits his old life and happily drives off into the NY, streets.

This is being touted as one of the most graphic gay sex scenes on television, but it’s much more important than that. Representation matters, and this scene is notable for showing two Men of Color (Middle Eastern) in a non-exploitive, sexual relationship, something almost no one mentions. It’s certainly almost never represented in fiction, or on a mainstream television show. It’s also notable for how it’s filmed. This isn’t sex. This is solace. This is two unhappy men, far from their homeland, seeking comfort from, and giving comfort to, each other. It is interesting that Salim’s  room number is #318. In the Bible,  Job 3:18 is loosely translated as, “There the prisoners rest together and hear not the voice of the oppressor. ” For Salim his oppression is his ties to a family that hates him, and hold his  purse strings; for the djinn, it is a job he hates, with people he despises.

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Salim refers to the djinn as an Ifrit,  which is one of the most powerful types of djinn mentioned in the Koran. They are giant winged creatures made of fire, often depicted as wicked and ruthless. So no. They do not grant wishes, although this djinn is happy to break with tradition and grant Salim’s wish to be free to live the life he wants. (I don’t think the djinn goes back home because this is the guy we saw talking to Wednesday in the diner. We may see him again later.)

 
Mad Sweeney

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As for the lucky coin Shadow lost, Mad Sweeney is having a very bad week. The coin has often served as a protection for him against death, and he inadvertently gave it to Shadow, after their bar fight. He wakes from a drunk, in a filthy bathroom, to the sight of the owner’s rifle. He challenges her, thinking the weapon won’t fire, but it does, and his face gets cut by glass. Later, he hitches a ride with a stranger, but that man gets impaled by some rebar. Sweeeney realizes he has lost his lucky coin and that he must have given it to Shadow.

Shadow and Wednesday 

Wednesday is happy to announce to Shadow that they are about to rob a bank. In the book, Shadow barely protests this, but the series version is a lot more reticent to go back to prison. Wednesday assures him that he will not,  if he thinks of snow, and asks Shadow not just to believe that he won’t go back to jail, but to believe IN him. I love this scene, not because of the robbery, but because of the silliness surrounding it. While preparing for their felonious endeavor, he and Shadow discuss the existence of Jesus in a copy shop, which is appropriate. Apparently there are several copies of Jesus, and Wednesday skirts just a little too close to racism when mentioning Mexican Jesus,  (Yes, there is a Mexican version of Jesus, that we’ll meet in a later episode) for Shadow’s comfort. I was just tickled to find out there’s a bunch of Jesuses: a Black Jesus, a Mexican Jesus, a Catholic Jesus, etc. and why not. Jesus would have different American versions, because it’s all about belief.

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Another favorite moment I thought was hilarious, was Wednesday buying Shadow chocolate, while Shadow embarrassingly admits that he does, indeed, like marshmallows, which I’m glad he does, because Wednesday pretty much just gave him a cup full of marshmallows, with a drop of hot chocolate. Honestly those are the biggest marshmallows that have ever lived, which is then followed by a shot of Shadow intensely concentrating on images of snow, while their car, Betsy, jumps over the mounds of marshmallows in his cup.

It actually does start to snow, and under that cover, Wednesday pretends to be a security guard taking in business pouches, at the broken ATM. (No, this would not work in real life, people.) Shadow gets wrapped up in this scheme when the police, investigating Wednesday, call to verify that he works for him. You can see Shadow  gets a bit enthusiastic about his role. They retire to another diner to count their loot, while Shadow waffles about whether or not he made it snow. Both the show and the book are unclear on this point,  but I like to believe he did, because that makes me happy.

Mad Sweeney

Sweeney finally makes it to Shadow’s side and tries to bully him into giving up the coin he accidentally gave him, but Shadow is  unperturbed and  tells him he threw it on Laura’s grave. Sweeney goes to Laura’s grave but there’s no coin, and no Laura either.

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Back at the hotel Shadow returns to his room, and is surprised to see his dead wife waiting for him. Yes, she is dead. No, she is not a zombie. I think technically she’d be called a revenant or something, I guess. Laura does get to play a pivotal role in Shadow’s story so no, she’s not just a sexy floorlamp.

Next week, we get Laura’s backstory. Why and for how long was she cheating on Shadow with his best friend? What if anything did Wednesday have to do with her death, since he knew about it  ? How did she and Shadow meet? Did she ever love him? How come I’ve never seen that actress before?

TTFN!!!

Fight Philosophy 101 : Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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 Introduction:

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.

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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.

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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.

The Middle:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Finale:

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.

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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.