Summer of Sammo: A Brief Thought on the Ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

I still think this is a pretty great movie, almost 15 years after it proved to be a surprise hit, thanks in no small part to Sony Pictures releasing it uncut in its intended form (ahem, Harvey Weinstein). That it lost Best Picture to Gladiator is one of the underrated travesties of recent Oscar history (and there’s a tough competition). Especially fantastic are the fight scenes, where Ang Lee’s classical restraint in framing and editing gives weight to Yuen Woo-ping’s spectacular wire stunts. Where the dominant 90s standard had been the Ching Siu-tung/Tsui Hark school of rapid-cutting to hide the strings, Lee and Yuen, working with a bigger budget and fancier technology were able to digitally remove them, giving them much more room to relax the visual style and allow the excitement to come from the actors moving through space (my favorite shot might be one from the fight at the inn, where the camera glides down three stories following Zhang Ziyi’s jump, a POV version of the old trampoline stunt rendered smooth and lovely by computers and Steadicam). The movie’s full of great fight sequences, great performances and is a touching tribute to the wuxia classics of the 60s and 70s, particularly those King Hu made in Taiwan and that Ang Lee was familiar with from childhood.

But. . .

The epilogue still doesn’t sit right with me. A bunch of people seem to think the movie ends with Zhang Ziyi killing herself, maybe because she’s sad that she basically caused Chow Yun-fat’s death. But in no way do I think that’s what Ang Lee intended to convey. She leaps off the cliff to fulfill Chang Chen’s wish, and flies away knowing it has come true (like the boy in the folk tale he had previously told her). The contradiction is that his wish is for them to be together, and thus the ending is a paradox: she’s alone but free and together and in love. She can’t be both, and so the film ends in a kind of zen state. That’s fine, except Lee hasn’t really prepared the audience for that kind of ending (in the way that King Hu slowly builds to the ending of A Touch of Zen), it being for the most part a straight-ahead action movie with asides about the contradictions of love and honor.

The whole film is about what people want from Zhang: everyone wants her to be something in relation to them rather than allow her to develop as her own person: daughter, disciple, sister, wife, lover. The love/honor conflict is the story of the interrupted romance between Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. But they’re on the verge of resolving the contradiction, by setting aside out-dated notions of loyalty (to her dead fiancee) and getting on with their romantic lives. Their resolution doesn’t require some kind of supernatural wish-fulfillment (it’s just chance circumstance that gets in the way), and neither do we think Zhang’s should. At the end of the film, she and Chang are together at Wudan Mountain, she’s freed from her evil master (the always great Cheng Pei-pei) and her familial obligations. There is literally nothing stopping them from living happily ever after. And yet, she jumps. Why? Devotion to a code of honor she’s seen ruin the lives of Yeoh and Chow, has had no respect for or belief in in the past? Or sadness and guilt leading to suicide? Realization that Chang only wants something from her as well, that with him she’ll never really be free?

I think what Lee is after is that her leap is an expression of her conflicting desires: she wants freedom and she wants Chang: domestic happiness along with a fulfilling career as a martial arts professional. That’s not too complex a concept (it’s a challenge being a working wife and mother), but the vagueness with which Lee depicts it lends itself too easily to misinterpretation (the suicide theory) or dismissal (he’s just being obscure so as to make the movie seem more “arty”.) But I’m curious as to what other people think. I love so much else about the film.

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