Badass Women In Cinema: Yu Shu Lien

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Match is Women’s History Month. To mark the occasion, I will be discussing some of my favorite badass women from cinema. Some are warriors, some broke gender barriers, and some were just characters that were ahead of their time. My first female cinema badass is Yu Shu Lien from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I have to confess that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the first martial arts film I saw and also the first foreign language film I saw in a theater. What an experience! There are so many remarkable things about the movie. There are the amazing sword fights, the gorgeous score, the epic sweep of the story, etc. But what really blew me away was that this wasn’t just a martial arts film that was there to show us great swordplay. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave immense depth to its characters, especially the women. My favorite is Yu Shu Lien. She’s played in an astonishing performance by Michelle Yeoh. American audiences may remember her from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. She proved to be every bit Bond’s equal. Here she gets to not just kick butt, but also have a more complex character arc.

Yu Shu Lien is a professional bodyguard during the Qing Dynasty. Her fiancée we learn, was murdered. He also happened to be the best friend of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a Wudang swordsman with whom Yu Shu Lien is very close. As you can imagine, this adds complications to their feelings for one another. Li Mu Bai has finally decided to retire. He wants Yu Shu Lien to take his sword called Green Destiny to his friend Sir Te. But Green Destiny is stolen from Sir Te by a masked thief. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien team up to find the sword.

So, why do I put Yu Shu Lien in the pantheon of badass women of cinema? Well, for starters, her sword fighting skills are phenomenal. Often in action movies it’s the men who get to have all the good fight scenes and there’s a woman who needs to be saved. Not so in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yu Shu Lien is as strong and capable of taking care of herself as anyone else.

Another reason I include Yu Shu Lien is that her character doesn’t take easy paths in life. Yes, she has feelings for Li Mu Bai. But once her fiancée is murdered, they don’t just suddenly become an item. She still feels a bond to her fiancee. And Yu Shu Lien has many moments where she could have shown her conflict in a big ugly cry or over the top acting. But Michelle Yeoh plays the character in a way that’s brilliantly subtle. You sense her pain in her eyes and her physical mannerisms. There’s no melodrama in her performance.

Finally, I really liked the way the relationship between Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang) was handled.Yu Shu Lien teaches her a lot about life, but never claims to have all the answers. She doesn’t sugar coat how anything is. And then a sister-like bond develops between the two women as the film progresses. I appreciated that Yu Shu Lien never talks down to Jen Yu. Their dynamic never feels forced. These are two complex, fascinating leading ladies. When Yu Shu Lien finds out that (spoiler alert!) Jen Yu has betrayed her, it’s not resolved in a style reminiscent of a soap opera. They settle it not with a war of words but with combat. It’s not only action-packed, but we’re more invested in it because the women have been so well-developed leading up to that point.

It’s not enough to give a woman a sword to make her a badass. She has to have emotional complexity and not just be eye candy who’s there to end up with her love interest. The relationship between Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai is romantic without spelling it out in capital letters. Yu Shu Lien is wise, world-weary, and devoted to her duty. She remains one of my favorite characters in all of cinema.

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