“In what ways are people and their experiences brought to life through the distinctively visual?”
The way people perceive the world is constantly challenged by our perceptions of the distinctively visual. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) by Ang Lee, captures the distinct junction of the clash of Eastern and Western philosophies in China. It utilises the visual aspects of Enlightenment and Freedom, Chinese Zen mysticism, and Dao philosophies to depict the struggle between these two cultural influences. The Execution (1995) by Yue Ming Jun is a ‘cynical realist’ depiction of the state of politics in modern China, in which government censorship and sanction on freedom of expression has resulted in the ‘frozen’ laughter of citizens who can only response through absurd positivity. Through these two texts responders and their experiences are brought to life by the depiction of Asian culture and ideas through the distinctively visual.
A key idea explored by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon lies in the genealogy of the film as an international production. A key aspect of the distinctive visual sought after by Lee, is the depiction of Eastern thought versus Western principles. In particular, this is evident through the contrast of two central characters, Shu Lien whom represents conservative Eastern thought, and Jen Yu, whom represents the western desire for independence and freedom. Jen Yu is the daughter of an aristocrat. Her establishing shot demonstrates this through the use of windows, doors, and cropped shots of Jen within frames. This is particularly conveyed through the close up of Jen Yu and the use of low saturation as she looks out of the carriage window , highlighting her lack of freedom and entrapped nature. Her confession to Shu Lien, “I am getting married soon, but I haven’t lived the life I want” acknowledges the radical thought of wanting to remove herself from the institution of the Chinese aristocracy and its Confucius philosophy. This is clearly acknowledged visually through the flashback of her in the desert. The contrasting landscape and juxtaposed camera shots illustrates her true character as a proud and fierce young girl, rather than the wallflower in the opening scenes. Conversely, the film also accentuates the honour and integrity of the Confucius thought through Shu Lien. However, it criticises the way it diminishes human nature and the intimate bonds between individuals. This is established through the two shot of Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien together in the bamboo tea house. Though Li Mu Bai has confessed “I want to be with you”, Shu remains stubbornly loyal to her Confucius beliefs, “as a woman I must abide by tradition.” Again, the motif of frames and windows present itself, and the visual depiction of the two lovers framed within walls symbolically represent their ‘repressed’ feelings. Therefore, the film pits Eastern philosophy against western individualism to create an interesting contrast for the audience, engaging both Asian and western audience in a globalised context.
Likewise, the clash between the East and West is also depicted in The Execution (1995) by Yue Ming Jun. The painting itself depicts the taboo subject of the Tiananmen Square Massacre specifically Chinas communist society in which censorship is enforced within the nation. It combines elements of both traditional Chinese, as well as Western centric views of Communist China to create a distinctly visual depiction of the censorship in China. The physical act depicted in the image is as the title depicts – “the execution” utilised to highlight the methods used by the communist society of China. However, the individuals who are performing the execution are not holding any weapons. They are miming, empty handed. This is a representation of the Chinese hypocrisy and that most executions are carried out in secret, away from the public eye. Hence, the executions are both ‘unseen’ and ‘invisible’ to the western media. The hallmark of Ming Jun’s work is the laughing faces. This is his own face, imposed upon all his subjects. Both the executed men, the watching ‘soldiers’ have this same expression. This represents the wilful political ignorance of a Chinese people who have become compliant to the tyranny of China’s autocratic rule. Hence, the artist visually depicts an interesting image that combines both the western view and external view of China, with the internal absurdist acceptance of the Communist party within China.
The film also engages with the concept of individuality and freedom, against conformity and compliance. Each character is constrained within the frameworks of their lives, be it Confucism, honour, gender or personal conscience. Therefore, a key aspect of each character’s growth is the freedom achieved by confronting these barriers. However, only Jen Yu achieves total freedom and liberation. Throughout the film Jen fights against what she perceives to be the restraints upon her freedom. Her conflict with Xiao Hu represents one of the most primal conflicts of power between man and woman. The symbolic destruction of her lady-like facade as she defeats Xiao Hu, with a double shot of her standing and kicking him represent her refusal to play the stereotyped female role even in a setting away from civilisation. Likewise, her fight against Shu Lien represents resistance against the orthodox Chinese culture defined by her society. Similarly, even as Li Mu Bai attempts to instruct her she chooses her own path “you can keep your lessons to yourself”. A long shot of mountains and green scenery shows Jen diving into clear waters to chase the Green Destiny metaphorically represent cleansing and grasping her own destiny. Thus, by the end of the film, Jen’s perceived suicide encompasses both Eastern and Western philosophy. Her choice to leap from Wu Tang Mountain is purely her own. It is a choice which resonates with the Daoist philosophy of absolute non attachment and a pure moral action. The use of a serene close up of Jen surrounded by white clouds allude to tranquillity and freedom where ironically it is she who has really obtained what Li Mu Bai could not “transcending space and time and achieving true freedom”.
Ultimately, Lee and Yue Ming Jun succeeds in portraying the Chinese phenomenon of nostalgia in depicting the universe struggle between sense and sensibility and in commenting on the Chinese hypocrisy and its comparison with western traditions. Therefore it is clear that Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Execution effectively draws out people and their experiences through the unique and distinctively cinematic aspects of the film.