"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," directed by Ang Lee, is a fairy tale-like epic, remarked upon as much for its breathtaking scenery and balletic fencing scenes as for its plot and characters. It concerns the famous swordsman Li Mu Bai, who sets out with Shu Lien, herself a skilled warrior, to recover the ancient sword Green Destiny, which has been stolen by Jen, the wild daughter of the provincial governor. We learn about Mu Bai and Shu Lien's unrequited love, Jen's own love affair with a nomadic bandit, and Mu Bai's quest to avenge the murder of his master teacher. Rabbi Kushner sat down with Michael Kress to discuss the movie.
What do you think of the warrior culture that was at the heart of this movie?
I've never seen a kung fu movie. People who have tell me this is part of a genre. I had no idea, so I was a real innocent as a viewer. Everybody in the movie got hurt. Everyone was damaged. I was disappointed. Both of the love scenes in the movie came to nothing. I am a big boy; I can deal with unrequited love and people dying, but this seemed to go out of its way to say love doesn't get consummated.
Do you think that it's inevitable in a culture like that that everyone ended up getting hurt?
I don't know how to make sense out of this attempt to make a warrior culture transcendent and religious. I find that to be disjunctive and contradictory. I wound up thinking it's sort of like a Clint Eastwood movie or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: These guys have a lot of weapons and they blow people up and they kill people. They're basically on the side of good, but I don't care how self-transcending and noble their cause is, they're just thugs. I felt uncomfortable trying to relate to that religiously.
The main male character, Li Mu Bai, says at the beginning, "I was meditating and came to a place of great grief and had to leave the monastery." What was he doing in the monastery? He was learning how to kill people, learning how to use weapons very effectively. That didn't make sense to me.
I was struck that at the moment when enlightenment seemed to be his, he found only despair. Do you think that's a common occurrence?
I don't think the movie is profound enough to be saying that people who are warrior-monks are spiritually crippled. I would love if it said that: That would make it a redeeming spiritual movie. I am aware that there are some Eastern traditions of fighting that do wind up transcending the simple act of fighting. But call me dumb, call me unimaginative, I don't understand why the hell you have to fight to begin with.
I am just thinking of the modern Hebrew phrase tohar neshek, which means purity of arms, that the Israelis came up with and have not been doing a consistently great job of living up to. But at least they have enough brains to know it's a good idea. I am struck that there are few gun accidents in Israel, though everyone has a gun there. Everyone hates them. People can't wait to get rid of them.
There is a Jewish spiritual tradition of a passionate, biblical detestation of weapons and weaponry. Some people refuse to use a knife to cut the challah [bread] on Friday night because it's a knife. Anything that can be made into a weapon can't be used. Judaism at any rate is fairly unequivocal about its attitude toward weapons.
Li Mu Bai says over and over that he's trying to escape the cycle of violence, to escape that lifestyle. Why do you think he has so much trouble doing that?
I don't think he's trying to escape it, because his primary goal in life is to get that angry little bitch to be his student. Don't get me started on her--she was horrible. Totally un-redeeming in every way, a woman with no understanding of her anger and the destruction she was causing in the universe. I can't figure out what anybody saw in her. I didn't like her at all. She was spoiled and angry and nasty. And she got to play too big a role, I thought, whereas the man of real wisdom and spiritual depth, Li Mu Bai, we didn't see enough of him. He didn't emerge as the dominant teacher, the guru, the rebbe.
What did you think of his relationship with Shu Lien?
I thought their faces were wonderful faces. They were deep and thoughtful and mature and spiritual. I was captivated.
Why do you think they had so much trouble admitting to and acting on their love?
They love one another, they were meant for one another, they were the perfect couple, and all they managed to do was hold hands once and then he died. Very unsatisfying.