Time to talk shop. The costume shop, that is…
Chinese cinema can be very interesting, and one of the most famous (sorta) recent films is 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee. This visually arresting movie is part romance, part traditional Chinese fantasy, part Hollywood, and all spectacle.
It opens at a typical village on a typical day. At a grand estate, the servants are going about their daily chores when one if them sights Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), who’s come to see the mistress of the house, rich merchant Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Li Mu Bai’s a Wudan fighter in training in the mountains, and during his meditation he found himself outside of time and space in a place of profound sadness.
Li Mu Bai doesn’t know what it means, but he wants to give up being a warrior and bequeath his Green Destiny sword to their benefactor, a rich man named Sir Te (Sihung Lung). Shu Lien promises to take the sword to him when she goes to Peking. One thing about these two characters: There’s always tension between Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien because they’re in love with each other but unable to act on it. Shu Lien was engaged to Li Mu Bai’s friend who was killed in battle, and so she and Li Mu Bai have stayed apart out of loyalty to him.
In Peking, Sir Te says that Li Mu Bai is the rightful owner of the sword, so he’ll just be custodian of it. He invites Shu Lien to stay the night at his house, which she gladly accepts.
Shu Lien carries the Green Destiny to a suitable place in the house, and on the way, she meets Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), the governor’s daughter, who has lots of questions about the sword, because she’s also trained in fighting. She asks Shu Lien if she knows how to fight, and Shu Lien tells her she does, but her weapon of choice is a machete.
That night, the Green Destiny is stolen by a mysterious figure in black, and everyone who’s in the near vicinity takes turns trying to get it back. Shu Lien does as well, but the masked figure flies over the wall of the governor’s house.
Yeah, that’s the thing to remember with this movie–some of the characters don’t just jump and run, but also fly. It’s a Wudan technique.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Jen Yu is the thief, because it’s obvious. Jen Yu is set to be married, but she’s not interested, and the woman she thinks is her attendant is Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Chang), a notorious killer who’s been mentoring her in Wudan ways. At least, that’s what Jade Fox believes. Jade Fox dangles the idea of striking out on their own before Jen Yu, and Jen Yu hesitates.
Meanwhile, Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai are trying to recover the sword. Shu Lien has a good idea whodunnit, and Li Mu Bai sees the enterprise as one last mission. Only problem is, Jen Yu has left her dad’s house, so our heroes have to think fast. Jade Fox isn’t far behind, either. She’s creepy like a female Emperor Palpatine, only she can’t shoot lightning from her fingers.
Someone else is also out to find Jen Yu. Lo (Chen Chang), known as “Dark Cloud” in the thieving world, met Jen Yu when he stole a comb of hers out in the desert. Jen Yu takes off after him, and when she finally catches up to Lo she throws kicks and punches at him every chance she gets. Lo is the better fighter, though, and he soon subdues Jen Yu.
However, it doesn’t take much for these two to go from scrapping to snogging, and even though Jen Yu has to go back to her family, she and Lo aren’t apart for long. Like any ardent lover, Lo rides in dramatically to break up Jen Yu’s wedding.
How does it all end? I’m not going to ruin anything, and anyway, we have other business to attend to. 😉
Since we’re here to talk about the film’s costumes, here’s the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wardrobe in a nutshell: Weight. Not “weight” as in “heavy”, such as from beading or layers of fabric, but each costume worn by the principal characters has a meaning and purpose.
Jen Yu’s clothes as the governor’s daughter are sumptuously embroidered and overall she presents a gorgeous picture. However, she’s also very constricted, because her hair is very heavy, her collar is very high, and she can’t move easily. She can’t get out of her own clothes alone. An army of servants has to be looking over her shoulder, assisting her in tying this or wrapping that, maybe putting up her hair or unwinding it. She’s not free.
When Jen Yu becomes a fighter, her clothes become spare and less detailed. She has more freedom of movement. This happens at several points in the story–when she’s first with Lo and he frees her from her aristocratic garb, suddenly she’s a lover. Jade Fox also frees her, but for nefarious purposes, as she wants Jen Yu to be a ruthless killer like she is.
Jen Lu is freed a third time by Shu Lien towards the end of the film when her costume becomes simple and flowy. She now has a choice: Will she fight for love or hatred? Will she be a slave to Jade Fox, or will she allow herself to live side by side with Lo?
Shu Lien’s costumes are equally symbolic, only more static. She’s a rich merchant with a respected father, so she has to look the part. Her clothes are beautifully embroidered and well made. She’s dramatic and has little hints of high fashion about her all the time, such as the airy, floating cape she wears when she and Li Mu Bai come back to her house.
However, Shu Lien’s clothes serve a dual purpose. Her character is not only supposed to be feminine and proper, but she has to always be ready to fight, which is why their styling is not strictly female. She’s also used to caring for herself, despite having her own army of servants. Shu Lien’s clothes communicate her independence.
The changes in Li Mu Bai’s outfits are the most subtle. He always wears an undyed tunic with slacks, but it’s how the tunic looks that tells the story. Initially, he has a slightly rumpled appearance, like a man who can’t decide where he fits in. Is he a warrior or a gentleman? He doesn’t know yet.
As he goes on, however, his clothes become smoother and more purposeful, because he has a job to do outside of the warrior community. He’s now found his niche. Towards the end of the film, his tunic actually gets brighter, as if he’s somehow other worldly, but I can’t say more because it’ll ruin things.
Even Lo, a relatively minor character, presents his own textile subtext: Don’t fence me in. His clothes are always long and flowy, because he’s a man of the desert, and he doesn’t want anyone or anything tying him down except for Jen Yu. He just wants to live with her and be happy, because his thief racket is merely a smokescreen.
No pun intended, but there are so many layers of symbolism in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, whether in its wardrobe and otherwise. Those who have seen it know what a marvel it is, and those who haven’t, well, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a truly amazing film.
Want more clothes? Debra’s Costume Drama Blogathon has got you covered (see what I did there?). Thanks for hosting, Debra–this was very cool! Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you this coming week with a new Shamedown…
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is available on DVD and 4K Blu-ray from Amazon.
10 thoughts on “Form and Function”
Spectacle indeed! There is so much eye-filling design to take in, that this was never meant to be a “one time” movie.
– Caftan Woman
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I totally agree. I didn’t even notice the costume aspect of this film until this blogathon.
Great choice for the blogathon! I saw this movie on VHS back in the day, and I was blown away by the story and the visual effects. I didn’t pay much attention to the costumes, however, so I was glad to read your essay. I didn’t realize how the clothing changed to underscore the characters’ development. Guess that means it’s time to see this fab movie again! 🙂
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Cool, glad it inspired you, Ruth! Yeah, I didn’t notice the costumes’ symbolism either until this blogathon and then it all clicked, lol.
I adore this film, and am so glad someone chose one that wasn’t set in Europe or America. I never thought about the meaning of the costumes, now I have a great excuse to watch it again!
Thanks for participating in the blogathon!
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You’re very welcome, Debbie, and yeah, I thought it would be different. I was surprised how much meaning was there in the costumes too. That’s why blogathons like this are so cool–thanks again for inviting me!
What a great article, Rebecca! I saw ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ for the first time last year and I genuinely enjoyed it! Your post brought up an aspect of the movie that I had never thought about until I read your article. I also reviewed this film, so here’s the link if you want to check it out:
I currently have an on-going series of polls for a movie awards I created. If you’re interested, here’s the link for the most recent poll if you want to vote:
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Thanks, Sally! Yeah, it’s a marvel–the visuals alone are amazing. And thanks, I’ll have to check it out. 😀
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