positions: east asia cultures critique 13.2 (2005) 441-471
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Gender Imaginations in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Wuxia World
Taiwanese director Ang Lee's creative trajectory exemplifies the growing trend of cross-cultural transmission. The most successful example of Lee's border crossing in the era of globalization is without a doubt Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, his first martial arts film. Only four months after it opened in December 2000, Crouching Tiger had grossed nearly $120 million and received almost universally enthusiastic reviews.1 It created a sensation at Cannes, claimed two awards at the Golden Globes, and eventually made a sweep at the Academy Awards for best cinematography, best original score, best art direction, and best foreign film.
Much of the film's attraction and visual pleasure comes from its female characters—Yu Xiulian (Yu Shu Lien), Yu Jiaolong (Jen Yu), and Jade Fox—whose interactions constitute the dramatic core of the plot, with each action sequence involving at least one of the trio. The "indomitable," "fierce and relentless" fighters, to borrow a few of the critics' epithets, are indeed [End Page 441] spectacular: they run up walls, glide across water, and fly over rooftops; they jump, kick, and punch—viewers get an eyeful. Audiences familiar with the martial arts genre readily recognize these women as mirror images of the fighting females in the Hong Kong martial arts movies exported in large quantities to Southeast Asia and widely available through the video market in the West. However, despite the kung fu craze of the 1970s, in the United States the influence of Hong Kong martial arts cinema was limited mainly to marginalized audiences in inner-city theaters, such as blacks, Chinese-speaking viewers in Chinatowns, and restless adolescents. Well-known directors and actors from Hong Kong developed cult followings both at home and abroad,2 but it was not until the late 1980s that the genre gained the interest and respect of the mainstream and Hollywood began appropriating Hong Kong talent and action in its productions.3 The success of the Disney animated feature Mulan (1998) further popularized the image of the Chinese woman warrior, turning it into a profitable commodity.4 Precisely because the fighting woman and the martial arts genre that sets her off from traditional femininity have become broadly consumed signs in global circulation, a case of a native particular made universal (as Roland Robertson would say about globalization), it is all the more important that we interpret unorthodox expressions delivered across cultural barriers.5
In what has become a canonical text in feminist criticism, Laura Mulvey argues that the cinematic experience is a voyeuristic activity producing erotic pleasure, and the pleasure in looking occurs in cinema, as in real life, between the active/male and the passive/female. The projection of phallic desire, the beautiful woman onscreen takes on an exhibitionist role as a display, a spectacle, and a sign of sexual difference "coded for strong visual and erotic impact."6 Although her focus on sexual difference has ruptured the nongendered metapsychology of cinema propounded by some film theorists, the unitary vision embedded in Mulvey's premise has itself become an issue of dissension. Bell hooks raises poignant questions about the homogeneity assumed by the Mulveyan paradigm, which was built on the roles of middle-class white women in classic Hollywood films: "Despite feminist critical interventions aimed at deconstructing the category ‘woman' which highlight the significance of race, many feminist film critics continue to structure their discourse as though it speaks about ‘women' when in actuality it speaks [End Page 442] only about white women."7 The orthodox theorization of sexual difference, many also point out, excludes options that seek to explore the distinctions in alternative dimensions, such as social class, age, and sexual preference, as practiced in black and queer cinemas.8 The attention to the ethnic other in transnational representations yields yet more approaches to the female difference. In her critique of Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor, Rey Chow maintains that...