Ang Lee – Exploration of Hidden Emotion

Ang Lee is a world-renowned Taiwanese filmmaker and director. Lee is not only the sole director to have won two Golden Bears in the history of the Berlin Film Festival, but also the sole Chinese director in history to won the Best Director Award at three world film awards, the Academy Awards, the British Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards. Lee has built his reputation upon his success internationally, which reflected on the box offices. When thinking of Lee’s work, it is hard to stereotype them into one single category because his works are so different from each other, all with diversified themes and shooting techniques. He unintentionally constructed “a cross-cultural communication bridge” when he simply aimed for his survival in the consumer culture as he perfectly incorporated the Chinese and Western elements into his film and retold the original stories with his own interpretation and feelings (Hadfield; Lee). 

Figure 1. Ang Lee won the Oscar for Best Director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Two of these movies in particular are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Lust, Caution (2007). The settings, characters, and time of these two movies are very different, but both are about hidden lust and emotion under the surface and the main characters trying to understand their true natures despite the societal constraints. Lee has designed a path of Chinese contemporary art that truly belongs to himself. His keen observation and reference to art also made his films particularly delicate and layered. Audience often needs to watch more than one times to notice the details and meaning behind. This paper focuses on the significance of Lee’s exploration of repressed emotion on conservative Chinese society through examination of specific scenes and symbols in those two movies. In other words, this paper answer the question why Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an international hit, and how come Lust, Love did extraordinary well in China and Taiwan but not in the West.

Figure 2. A poster of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 臥虎藏龍 (2000).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a wuxia film about grievances of jiang-hu (中文: 江湖) brought by the “Green Destiny” and complex relationships among the characters. The story is set in Qing dynasty, and Li Mu Bai (lead actor) is prominent swordsman while Yu Shu Lien (lead actress) owns a security agency who also knows swordplay. They have feelings for each other; however, they never confess because Shu Lien was previously engaged to Mu Bai’s friend Meng Sizhao who died saving him. Mu Bai retires and has Shu Lien to bring the “Green Destiny,” a symbolic sword of his status on jiang-hu, to Sir Te. Jen Yu (supporting actress), who comes from rich family and soon to be wed, stoles the sword. It turns out that Jen’s governess is Jade Fox who killed Mu Bai’s master years ago. After a  fight between Mu Bai and Jen, they developed affection for each other. A throwback reveals that Jen’s young love Lo Xia Hu led a group of bandit and raided Jen’s caravan. He comes to Beijing and asks her to go back to Xinjiang with him. She refused and run away from her arranged marriage husband too. Later on, Jen and Shu Lien engaged in a duel, and Mu Bai shows up and chases her through the bamboo forests. He wins and asks Jen to be his apprentice, but she refuses. He then throws the sword into the lake, she dives into the water for it and is saved by Jade Fox, who uses Jen as a bait to attack Mu Bai and Shu Lien, but ended up being killed. Mu Bai is injured by the poisoned dart. Jen leaves for the antidote but returns too late. Before his death, he finally confesses to Shu Lien.

Figure 3. A poster of Lust, Caution 色, 戒 (2007).

Lust, Caution’s sets in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the rule of puppet government. A group of  young college students from acting club takes action, aiming to assassinate a senior official Mrs. Yee by having Wong Chia-chi (lead actress) disguised as “Mrs. Mai” to seduce him. Wong is inexperienced, and the group decided that she and Liang Junsheng, another student, have sex to be prepared for their plan. At this time, she and Kuang Yumin began to developed affection for each other, and she was disappointed how Kuang is deterred and took no actin. The plan eventually fails, and Wong sacrificed for nothing. Three years later Wang is recruited by Kuang who is now an agent to execute a renewed plan. She returned again as Mrs. Mai and becomes Mr. Yee’s mistress. Their sexual relationship starts rough but ascends to deeply emotional and passionate as can been seen from several explicit sex scenes. Wong became sexually and emotionally tied with Mr. Yee, who too develop feelings for her and decided to buy her six-carat diamond ring. When she tries on the ring and sees Mr. Yee’s love for her, she told him to flee. He bursts out of the store and escaped the assignation. Wong and her group are caught, and Mr. Yee has not choice but to sign their death warrants. Kuang stares at Wong when they all kneeled on the ground for execution. Mr. Yee returns home and sat on Wong’s bed with tears watering in his eye. Before he leaves the room, he turns back and looks at the room again. 

Central Argument 

Ang Lee tells the two stories of complicated emotions and lust while also including both Chineses and Western elements through the use of props, scene arrange ranges, eye contacts  and even explicit sex scenes, which is major breakthrough when Lust, Caution aired. 

Clip 1. Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu’s fight scene in the bamboo forest.

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu’s fight scene in the bamboo forest showcases vibrant artistic sense of Chinese landscape painting, and almost every second of the scenes contains the philosophical philosophy of Tai Chi Yin and Yang, which is a very traditional Chinese elements that often means two things that can match perfectly but also directly opposite at the same time. The bamboo in the background is soft and modest, which symbolize what Jen Yu needs to learn from Li Mu Bai. While Mu Bai is calm and restrained, while Jen Yu is chasing after him impatiently, a completely opposite of each other. The two moves high and low in the bamboo forest from time to time, staggered and confronted each other. He stood at the top of the bamboo and waited for her to climb all the way, at this time he was a fixed yin and she was a changing yang. They looking at each other and switches of their perspective, accompanied by the screams of yelling is a very subtle symbol of eroticism. As they continue to sway with the wind, Mu Bai hovers over Jen, but she leans back. The two are very close yet never really touched each other is another type of subtle sensuality. The actual sword fight seems to be less violent and not important, to Mu Bai, it is just game to flirt with Jen (Chan; Fu; Guo). In this few minutes of the sword fights, we can see very suppressed emotions and affections, but because the social status, their identity, other people, and types of different between them, they cannot express it throughly, even knowing what each other feel. This is a direct reflection on the compressed Chinese society where emotions are not let out in public, and manners, traditions, all these hits are the priorities. 

Figure 4. Wong Chia-Chi’s cheongsam are in much cheaper fabric and simple design when she was still a college student, before coming involved in the mission.
Figure 5. Wong Chia-Chi’s outfits half way through the movies. They are all well-designed and very body shape revealing. The cheongsam with pink (right) is the one she wore to a date with Mr. Yee, in which she sang a love song to him.

Wong Chia-chi’s transformation in Lust, Caution can be seen from her changes in outfits, from light blue, cheaper fabric, to darker blue with a more body define design clothes, which represents her changing into amore experienced and grown women and also a static to seduce Mr. Yee. Her traditional outfits in contrast with Mr. Yee’s western style suits is a perfect mixture of culture from both side shows how it was like when the foreign influences slowly infiltrates China. Wong’s cheongsam adds on another layer of eastern beauty and mystery. At first, Wong is just doing her job as Mrs. Mai, getting close to Mr. Yee, but as their relationship escalated, they fall for each other. But because Mr. Yee’s status as  the head of security and Mrs. Mai as a married woman, they still need to be subtle about feelings. The only place they can reveal their lust is when they are having sexual intercourse. It is often rough as seen in the movies, representing Mr. Yee self-suppression and constant pressure from work, meanwhile Wong as solitude of undercover has no one to tell her feeling too same can only use sex as a way to vent her emotions. In a already complex setting of being enemies, the movie further explore the problematic personal and ethical in terms of espionage. When Lee was suggested to delete the sex scences, Lee refused, and even back by his company (Ebert). The sex scenes are important because that is the centre of the movie, where hidden lust and feelings are express strongly and connects the head and end of the movies and Wong’s transformation (Chen; Tian).

In conclusion, both films explores the very sublet and hidden lust and emotions, Lee’s way so of portraying such feelings is just right, using the ying and yang to make a contrast between Mu Bai and Jen and further blurred the lines between them in a flirtatious way and the sex scenes to convey the true feelings under the peaceful and calm mask that both Mr,. Yee and Wong are wearing. Those two short extract from the movies remains very representative of Lee’s work. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received worldwide success because it presents Chinese elements in a way that makes the western audiences amazed. The outfits, the swords, the bamboo forest, and mostly importantly the fight scenes done by wire-flying are something that they have not seen before. Instead the fast pace combats, the wuxia drifts slowly and elegantly through the forests, up and down with his and her own pace, yet very precise when strikes. It is a different eastern beauty. On the other side, espionage dramas and sex scenes are not new to western audiences, even though Lust, Caution also shows the type of Chinese suppressed emotion, but the importance lies in the details of the movies. Like how the characters making eye contacts with each other and their lines reveals their mistress relationships with Mr. Yee. Every line they said contains a second deeper message, in order to fully understand it, the audience must first be able to relate and sink into the setting then understand some level of Chinese to notice the minor tone difference. Thus, for non-Chinese audiences, Lust, Love seems to be just another spy movie. However, this film received su much media coverages and did exceptionally well in the greater China, even received Golden Horse award. It is the first time ever, there is such direct reveal and representation of hidden lust and emotion, which is a whole new experience. Lee’s experiment on Lust,Caution definitely open a new door or a board range of ways and inspiration to shoot movies for Chinese directors, pathing a new foundation for more experimental Chinese contemporary art.

Connections with the Class

These two of Lee’s movies are connected to our class in several ways. First of all, Shu Lien, Jade Fox, and Jen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wong Chia-chi in Lust, Caution, and Hedda in Hedda, or Aspiration Sky High are all strong, independent women in the pursue of their own goals but strongly turned by love and bounded by the constraints of society, traditional Chinese values and expected role of women. They reveal new identities for women, each portraying a different side of strength and weakness of women through unconventional roles. Shu Lien initially tries to interpellate Jen into the mainstreams by telling her how there are certain tasks that she must do as a woman, speaking for the patriarchy system. She is indeed respected and powerful on jiang-hu, but inside she is soft and tied by the Chinese values, which is also the reason why she insisted to remain loyal to her dead fiancé and denied the affection between her and Mu Bai in front of other people. In the end she realizes that what it matters is to follow one’s own feeling and to live truly to one’s heart, which is her last lesson to Jen (Fu). It was too late when she realized rules are not important because like Mu Bai says “when you clenched your hands, there is nothing inside, but if  you open your hands, you holds the entire world” (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). 
Jade Fox plays the villain role, but she has her own reason like Hedda does. She wishes to master the Wudan swordplays but is never given the opportunity to take lessons from Mu Bai’s master, which triggered her to kill him out of hate and him underestimating her as a woman. However Mu Bai wins and revenges his master, after Jade Fox explains her reason, her death legitimized the patriarchy. Meanwhile Jenn is an innocent and energetic extended version of Jade Fox, and her actions also reveals her strong resistance against patriarchy (Chan, 9). She is in the middle of cultural calibration and tries to balance her own desires and her social responsibilities as a woman. She wants to pursue her own goals and live freely out of the system on jiang-hu but little does she know that the jiang-hu is not utopia. Also, Jen is eager to prove herself, refusing offers from Lo and Mu Bai, and even ran away from her newly wed husband. Same as Hedda, she suicides in the end. It can be interpret in two ways: a punishment for the harms she has done, or a “strong  feminist statement reflecting the impossibility of existence in a society where patriarchy has total control” (Chan, 14). Wong is different in a way that she is abandoned by her father who took his brother broad but not her. Her action joining the assassination for a second could be interpret as her afraid of being left behind again, and she can only join in so she can find herself a place to stand in the patriarchy world. 

As we discussed in class, Hedda is very different with the traditional Chinese women that is often caring, not educated, soft. She is smart, educated, ambitious knows how the officialdom, but due to her gender, she is restricted and can only rely on her husband. Her old lover is not in love with her anymore, and she tears the book apart but is not horrible because we can extract a reasons behind the actions like we do for Jen and Jade Fox. The morale behind the stories empahizes how little control women have about her own life and highlights the consequences behind the decisions.

All those characters portrays different sides of hardships and identity of women. Shu Lien is strong on the outside, but soft on the inside. Jade Fox might seems to be evil, but it can be explained that her disappoint, anger, and desire has transforms into one strong motivation that turns her into a villain. Jen is young and ambiguous, does not know too much about the real word because she is well-protected by her wealthy families, but ultimately realizes that the world is not as pretty as she thought. Wong seems to be calm, but her mind is conflicted with her mission and her feelings for Mr. Yee. Hedda is deep in love with Wen Bo, but her jealousy and desire blinds her eyes and leads to final suicide to self-punish. However, Hedda’s death in the ends seemly to tell that ambitious women does not end well, which in a sense support patriarchy. They are all hidden lust and emotions that they could not express of speak of, except Jade Fox, but maybe she was in love with the master and felt betrayed like Hedda does when she was look down by him. The stories are focused on those female characters’ ending, in which they come to realization. The ambiguity in Lee’s films and various different interpretation bring in the discussion of feminist possibilities. Both Lee’s films and Aspiration Sky High highlights the issues of Chinese patriarchy such as “oppressive nature of Chinese cultural centrism and traditionalism” (Chan). Lee’s sides on the matter remains ambiguity in order to make his films appeal to wider audiences, but without doubt Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution turn out to be huge accomplishments for him in his career.

Relevant Links
– Interview with Ang Lee about his film making  Link

Name Translation
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Li Mu Bai 李慕白
Yu Shu Lien 俞秀蓮
Jen Yu 玉嬌龍
Lo Xiao Hu 羅小虎
Jade Fox 碧眼狐狸
Lust, Caution
Wong Chia-chi/”Mrs. Mai” 王佳芝/麥太太
Mr. Yee 易先生(易默成)
Mrs. Yee 易太太
Kuang Yumin 鄺裕民
Liang Junsheng 梁潤生

Figure 6. Left to right, Wang Leehom as Kuang Yumin,
Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi/”Mrs. Mai”,
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Mr. Yee


  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a translations of Chinese idiom “臥虎藏龍”, which means somewhere with hidden talents, some of whom wished not to be revealed. “Hu” in Xiao Hu and “Long” in Jen’s name (direct Chinese translation: Jiao Long) mean “Tiger” and “Dragon” respectively.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is available on Netflix. 
  • Lust, Caution reveals the story itself, but it’s first a lot of caution then a lot of lust shown. “Atruer title would be “Caution: Lust” (Dargis).
  • Lust, Caution (free)

[1] Ang Lee, director. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sony Pictures Classics. 2000. Retrived from Netflix. Accessed 6 Dec. 2019.
[2] Ang Lee, director. Lust, Caution. Sony Pictures Classics. 2000. Retried from Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
[3] Chan, Kenneth. “The Global Return of the Wu Xia Pian (Chinese Sword-Fighting Movie): Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’” Cinema Journal, vol. 43, no. 4, 2004, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[4] Chen, Linxia. Cross-Politics, Sexual Abuse and Cultural Hybridity in the Perspective of Consumer Culture——With Li An’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Lust Ring” as the core [J]. Hundreds of Arts, 2008 (04): 175-178 +64. Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[5] Dargis, Manohla. “A Cad and a Femme Fatale Simmer.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 28 Sept. 2007. Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[6] Ebert, Robert. “Lust, Caution.” Robert Ebert. Ebert Digital, LLC, 4 Oct. 2007. Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[7] Fu, Shi. Talking about the Traditional Chinese Culture in Li An’s Films——Using Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an Example [J]. Business Story, 2015 (01): 16-17. Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[8] Guo, Yang. People in rivers and lakes——On Li An and his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [J]. Art Wide Angle, 2001 (05): 58. Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[9] Hadfield, James. “Ang Lee: The filmmaker decades ahead of his time.” The Japan Times. The Japan Times, 24 Oct. 2019, Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[10] Lee, Ang. “Film Director Ang Lee: ‘Telling Stories Is a Quest for the Meaning of Life.’” Interviewed by Chen, Jeanne, et al. Wharton University of Pennsylvania, 24 Apr. 2013, Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[11] Tian, Shuai. On the Subversion and Passover of Lust · Caution [D]. Hebei Normal University, 2018. Accessed 20 Dec. 2019.
[12] Wilcox, Emily. Hedda, or Aspiration Sky High.”Contemporary Chinese Performance Culture. 11 Nov. 2019, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Lecture.