Since I’m shipping out for the region tomorrow, my friend Alex Remington and I decided that, as a last hurrah before I leave, he’d show me Ong-bak, the explosive 2003 Thai martial arts movie that introduced Tony Jaa to American audiences. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth checking out. I’m no stunt expert, but a scene where Jaa, in a fight at a gas station, semi-intentionally sets his legs on fire and keeps him that way to increase the impact when he kicks someone in the face is pretty damn impressive.
But one thing we kept talking about throughout the movie, and that I thought about a great deal as I popped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon into the DVD player after he left, is the extent to which martial arts movies take a restrained attitude towards sexual desire and relationships. This may not be a new observation, but I wonder if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon connected so much with American audiences is that, in emotional contours, it feels like a Jane Austen novel–at least to me. There are the obvious parallels of course: Jen is basically submitting herself to an arranged marriage for the advancement of her father’s career; Yu Shu Lien and Master Li Mu Bai essentially ruin their lives by repressing their desire. But you’ve also got class contours that feel familiar, whether it’s the inferior martial artists (a police inspector and his daughter) who try and fail to kill Jade Fox at the beginning of the movie who are essentially living in a hovel outside of town and are essentially the equivalent of people in trade who go to nobility for justice; Jade Fox’s status as Jen’s governess; the way the noble family closes ranks around Jen; Lo as the unworthy suitor. And I think Jade Fox’s relegation to uselessness–the student who surpasses her, the woman she works for, the warriors who defeat her–is powerfully done, even if it’s not sketched in detail.
I’m projecting, obviously. There are Chinese history, Chinese gender roles, and Chinese understandings of class, and of course, Ang Lee’s Taiwanese-inflected interpretation of all of those things at play in Crouching Tiger. Reading Regency mores onto those elements is a crude form of translation. But while I have a hard time with tarted-up interpretations of Austen because I know the stories so well (something we discuss in comments a bit here). But I feel like Crouching Tiger, and other martial arts movies, do a good job of expressing and exploring the turbulence behind repressed emotion in a way that feels familiar and accessible to audiences wholly unfamiliar with their cultural contexts or styles of fighting. You may not be having sex on screen, but fighting’s quite the way to burn off similar energy. And if you’re Jen, the spoiled daughter of aristocracy, and you’re feeling particularly rebellious, you have a passionate affair with a desert bandit, and jump off Wudan Mountain. I’ve always loved that final scene in all its ambiguity. I can never decide if she dies, or if she’s finally free. In art about repression, great freedom and great risk seem eternally twinned. In Ong-bak, if Ting gives in to his skill, he might kill a man unjustly. Jen may not be able to be free or to die–she has to find a state in between.