Femme Fatale: Women, Violence, and Cinema

Films: 

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Directed by Ang Lee

Starring Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon covers the storylines of two characters as they intersect in Beijing. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) seeks to give up his life adventuring in the JiangHu and settle down with his long-time friend and romantic interest Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). He also seeks to avenge the murder of his master by the famous criminal Jade Fox. Meanwhile, Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is trying desperately to escape her forced marriage, reunite with her lost lover, and live a life of freedom and adventure. As Mu Bai moves to deliver his powerful and famous Green Destiny sword to a caretaker, Jen steals it and initiates the events of the film.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Kill Bill Volume 1

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, and Vivica A. Fox

Kill Bill is a revenge drama wherein the otherwise untitled Bride (Uma Thurman) attempts to seek vengeance. Betrayed by her compatriots in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, the Bride was the victim of a brutal attack on her wedding day which put her in a coma. Four years later, she wakes up and moves to hunt down those responsible for her attack including the Yakuza mob boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and other deadly assassins.

Kill Bill Vol: 1

Partner: Ella Yang

Ella Yang (Yang Xi) is from Beijing, China. She is a sophomore in college and studying foreign language and literature. She enjoys watching anime, reading, rollerskating, and drawing. Her favorite films from her youth include the Tom and Jerry series, Disney animated features, and High School Musical. She hopes one day to be a landscape designer.

Ella Yang

 

Analysis:

Treatment of Violence in the Films

            One of the chief differences between the violence shown in Crouching Tiger and that in Kill Bill is in the extent shown as opposed to implied. Kill Bill frequently depicts killing onscreen, whereas Crouching Tiger seems particularly averse to. Kill Bill has no problem with blood and gore, to the point of comic relief, whereas Crouching Tiger rarely resorts to showing blood. Finally, Kill Bill shows many characters, named and otherwise, dying on screen, but Crouching Tiger, even when characters may sustain grevious injury, prefers most characters shown alive. In one particularly telling scene, Zhang Ziyi’s character Jen fights off a gang of bandits in a traditional Jiu-dian. She throws them off balconies, down stairs, and into each other.

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However, in the next scene, most of the assailants are shown as battered and bruised, but alive. For the most part, it appears that the characters will recover in time.

Injuries in Crouching Tiger

In a parallel scene in Kill Bill, the Bride (Uma Thurman) fights another gang in a nightclub. She hacks off limbs and plucks out eyes without remorse.

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The shot showing the results of the battle show clearly dozens of bodies lying bloody and dead. Her character explicitly tells her fallen foes after the battle: “Those of you lucky enough to still have your lives, take them with you! However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.”

 

Kill Bill Nightclub Scene

 

That the perpetrator of such carnage is the protagonist and supposed to be a sympathetic character can be shocking to Eastern viewers. Even Jade Fox, the main antagonist of Crouching Tiger is not shown to kill so many people, nor is so sadistic as to keep the limbs of her enemies. In perhaps the most gruesome scene of Crouching Tiger, Jade Fox kills Police Inspector Tsai by throwing an ax into his head.

 

Crouching Tiger Picture 2

Yet despite this, there is still little bloodshed.

With regard to Kill Bill’s clear violence and depiction of bloodshed, Ella commented on how the film’s hero and heroine are supposed to be “moderate, merciful, and polite.” The protagonists should be people to aspire to, and the film should be both entertaining and educational. Too much bloodshed would be out-of-place, because it might make the hero as bad as the villain. In short, the heroes should demonstrate xiayi and be on the side of righteousness. Graphic violence, Ella also suggested, might scare members of the audience, and a film without an audience cannot be either entertaining or educational.

Stylistically, the films also portray violence differently. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon contains many features of the wuxia genre, including the presence of “Jianghu” as a place of lawlessness and freedom, the culture of honor associated with the martial arts, and the practice of qing gong to achieve fantastical elements. Many of the characters are also shown to have superhuman reflexes and stamina, explained as a result of long training and meditation. In fact, these skills enable the film to portray very violent actions without showing bloodshed. In the battle between Jen and Shu Lein, Shu Lein performs various moves and actions which, if connected, would cause devastating injury and perhaps death on contact. Jen’s own defensive skill is the only thing keeping the film from descending into a bloodbath. Both characters spar with vigor, but neither is hurt in the process. However, when Shu Lein finally bests Jen and is afforded the opportunity to kill her, she holds back, instead demanding that Jen merely submit and return the legendary Green Destiny sword.

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The Bride of course shares no such restraint. In an equivalent scene, The Bride duels O-ren Ishii, both only equipped with swords. Immediately, the differences are apparent. The moves of both combatants, while demonstrating expertise and ability, lack the smooth elegance of Jen and Shu Lein. Furthermore, both fighters are hurt, badly, before the duel becomes conclusive. Finally, The Bride does not offer any room for mercy. She cuts off the top of O-ren’s head and allows O-ren to die, with no regard for compassion, apology, or submission.

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Ella and I agreed that this difference is again representative of the Chinese desire to see honorable protagonists. Shu Lein’s mercy towards Jen in victory makes Shu Lein honorable beyond the shadow of a doubt. The Bride’s actions land her in a much more unclear moral grey area, underscoring again the difference between eastern and western cinema.

Women and Expectations

            One of Jen’s primary motivations for her actions is in her unwillingness to marry a business partner of her father’s. Her fear of being smothered, unsatisfied sense of adventure, and rebellious nature fuel her desire to explore the Jianghu and live in freedom. Notions of womanhood and what is expected of a woman run deep in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. At one point, Shu Lein suggests to Jen that getting married “is the most important event in a woman’s life, isn’t it?” Shu Lein, while talking to Jen, mentions that while she is not an aristocrat like Jen, she still must respect “a woman’s duties” more than her own feelings. Jade Fox’s own villainy may stem from sexism. Li Mu Bai’s master evidently refused to teach Jade Fox the principles of Wudan Kung Fu, and Jade Fox’s murder of him was primarily out of spite.

Jade Fox

All three women appear to have difficulties reconciling society’s expectations of them while also maintaining their own identities. Ella wondered if perhaps western audiences would fail to appreciate the bind that Jen was in, because many western women seem strong and liberated. I replied that while I felt that I understand the crux of the problem, there must be subtleties about the situation which eastern audiences can more readily appreciate because of their more traditional cultural norms. We also discussed that while sexism can be more overt in China (where the more rural communities still strongly prefer a son to a daughter), it is alive and well in the western world, though it has taken a more insidious and less open form.

In Kill Bill, the notion of women as primarily mothers and wives is also explored. The Bride is so named because she was betrayed and attacked at her wedding. She also exhibits a great deal of despair at the loss of her child. With regards to the family and children of others, The Bride and Vernita (a former assassin and now target of the Bride’s) pause their battle when Vernita’s daughter comes home from school. They then engage in friendly conversation as the Bride does not want to kill a mother in front of her child. Vernita attempts to garner mercy from the Bride by discussing her own daughter. Vernita also has the line: “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to fix Nikki’s cereal.” While it is clear that domesticity and marriage is not nearly as thematically crucial to Kill Bill, various aspects of the film allude to womanhood and would not be possible or as effective if she were male.

Cross-Cultural Reflection:

This project allowed for a cross-cultural exchange through film, giving me insights into Chinese culture otherwise impossible to communicate. I think most significantly, Ella’s not finishing of Kill Bill showed that while China was not necessarily averse to violence, but bloodshed seemed to be more taboo. Tarantino pushes the sensibilities of even American viewers, but watching this film actually gave Ella an uncomfortable visceral reaction, something violence I think can no longer elicit in myself. Western culture may be indeed desensitized to some aspects of violence in media. Ella and I also agreed that seeing mostly women participate in the combat was interesting and a departure from typical action film fare. I was also interested in how Ella commented that taking an innocent life onscreen was a very serious business, and Jade Fox’s willingness to do so indicated her evil nature. Meanwhile, the Bride takes scores of lives, but remains the hero and a sympathetic character. Jen’s victims in the hotel sustain what could be considered life threatening injuries, but all of them appear to survive the ordeal. The stark difference in the nightclub scene in Kill Bill can also reflect the differences in culture and what heroes/heroines are allowed to do. A final point that is worth making is that even though women execute most of the violence in both films, ultimately, they all defer to a male master (Mu Bai or Bill). Therefore as empowering as both films may be in their exploration of women and violence, the established patriarchy still exists.