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The Concept of Redemption in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic, and Kiss of the Dragon

  • Jeremy Swanson,
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Last year, two movies that received Oscar nominations presented two different, yet similar, concepts of redemption. The contradiction within and between their differently-similar presentations of redemption is demonstrative of the double-mindedness from which they were born. However, this year we have a different presentation of redemption from an unexpected source. While this work is not without its contradiction, it can be used to point us to genuine hope-filled redemption - to God's amazing grace. The two differently similar works of self-contradiction are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Traffic. The work analogically pointing us to the Light of genuine, hope-filled redemption is Kiss of the Dragon.

Visually, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is beautiful. From the beyond-balletic, ubermenschean, effortless, will-less, will-driven Kung Fu battles to the enchanting cinematography of dancing trees, flowing rivers, and serene desert landscapes, this movie creates an unbelievable world that, nevertheless, demands suspension of disbelief. All these enticing accidental components simply re-enforce and frame the essential foundation of sand, that is, the pseudo-foundation of "being true to yourself." The only genuine redemption, we are told, is self-redemption. The reason then that this work of art was so popular, the reason that it was both the highest grossing foreign film of all time, and the reason that it was critically acclaimed and nominated for an Oscar, was not simply that it was a "beautiful" film, but because it appealed to the universality of that point of ultimate idolatry within the depraved human heart. It appealed to the innate, universal desire for self-redemption. It echoed the words of the serpent in the garden so long ago, "you shall be as God." It willed, argued for, rationalized, asserted the contradiction of jumping off a mountain without knowing the reason for or consequences of such an action. It left love and whatever else behind in order to avoid committing the ultimate self-centered "sin," that is, the humanistically based, non-self-overcoming sin of not being true to yourself. If we can't save ourselves, we don't want to be saved.

While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon asserts the need and nobility of saving yourself, Traffic plainly asserts the impossibility of redemption. The war against drugs, we are told, is futile, both because of the corruption of the government of our southern neighbor, and because of the insatiable appetite for narcotics in our country. Even the new American drug czar, zealous to purge the country of the bane of addiction, does not know how to love his daughter, driving her to drug use, and eventually turning her into a sixteen-yea-old whore seeking only the next degrading quick fix. There is no good guy to root for in this movie; there are only drug dealers who profit on the vices and appetites of others; pregnant wives who take over their husband's previously unknown drug-running businesses in order to preserve an upper-class lifestyle; and drug czars who are either working for drug cartels or who have the very lack of love and relation that makes it so easy for so many to lose themselves in the self-imposed bondage of intoxicating self-nullification. There is no redemption, there is no hope, there is only regret. In this, Traffic's self-contradiction is less contradictory than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Redemption, even self-redemption, is a farce.

But even this is contradictory. Even this is a lie. Redemption does exist. The power of the light of this redemption in contradistinction to the darkness of the bondage of sin is analogically presented in Kiss of the Dragon. Kiss of the Dragon tells the tale of a Chinese government agent in Paris, seeking the apprehension of the head of an international drug ring. This Chinese agent becomes the target of a double-crossing, corrupt French law enforcement official. In the midst of this agent's troubles, he encounters a prostitute, a small-town American girl forced to sell her body on the streets because the very same corrupt French law enforcement official is holding her daughter hostage. This woman is in a living hell, being beaten by her pimp, shot up with heroin to make her compliant, selling her body on the streets every night, in the hope that some day she will get her daughter back and be able to flee her world of death. But really, she has no hope. Her situation is utterly hopeless. And the Chinese agent's history of ascetic dedication to law enforcement has made him the ultimate individualist, having no family, wanting no relation, committed only to his job. He does not want to become tainted by the prostitute's revolting impurity, or limited by anything even resembling an intimate relationship. However, his situation soon becomes so hopeless that the prostitute becomes his only means of liberation from the hell in which he has become the unjust target of the "law." This movie descends deeper and deeper into darkness, it becomes more and more hopeless, more and more mired in explicit portrayals of sin, until one begins to long for a tragic ending in which everyone dies. It brings one to the point that Traffic posited as the conclusion: There is no redemption. This point of absolute despair is extended, even as the hero, the Chinese agent, begins to change from an impersonal individualist to an empathetic crusader. But this movie does not end in this manner, and, amazingly, neither does it end in melodrama. After a two-hour immersion in human depravity and hopelessness, it somehow manages to shed a surprising beam of light in, literally, the last few minutes. It does not cling to the necessity of clarifying everything through some abstract or unreal teleology. Yes, the villain and his henchmen are vanquished in the end, but everything is not perfected in some unreal fairy tail. Perfect relation is not somehow instantaneously attained. Instead, the mystery and perfection of pure relation are only implied. There is unquestionable redemption, yet its ultimate perfection is not absurdly posited. The prostitute is freed from her hellish world through the death of her pimp, just as the Chinese agent is freed from his persecution under unjust executors of the law through the death of the same man. And yet there is not false instantaneous perfect relation between the hero, the prostitute, and her daughter; for in the final scene, the individualistic detachment of the hero is still there, there having been no physical intimacy between the prostitute and the hero, despite his liberation of her. Additionally, no direct contact is shown between the prostitute and her daughter during the entire movie. Having been separated for over a year, the re-unification of daughter and mother occurs only at the very end of the movie, and then not directly, for the mother awakens in her hospital bed to find her daughter asleep next to her, while the hero, sitting at her bedside, smiles from a distance.

If it has any, the worth of this movie comes from contrasting a life of hopeless bondage, the entire length of the movie, with a single beam of light, the final minute or two of the movie. The beauty of this single beam is that it does not seek to comprehend and make explicit all potential life and relation. Instead, it shows the infinite possibilities of relation made possible by new life, by love. In this sense, a fitting analogy can be made to God's amazing grace, for our situation is absolutely hopeless without Him. We must realize this, we must realize that all our righteousness is as filthy rags and worse, that any further action done in the flesh, no matter how righteous it may externally appear, works only to damn us further, for the cause of the soiling of our rags is the blood of those around us as we murder them. When God in His incomprehensible and sovereign grace liberates us and makes us alive, we are filled with joy and peace and love, and yet we cannot comprehend the depth of this joy and peace and love, for we cannot comprehend the profundity of our relationship to Him. This profundity will only be made manifest in eternity as He sanctifies us and continues to liberate us from our profound self-deceit. The width and length and depth and height of His love cannot be comprehended. If it could be, our God would not be infinite, or we would be omniscient, which brings us back to the words of that old serpent. But this cannot be, and that is why singing, "holy, holy, holy" for eternity before the throne of God will never grow old, for every day another manifestation of His unfathomable love and grace will be made known.

I do not recommend seeing any of these movies, and, ironically, I most strongly suggest abstinence from Kiss of the Dragon due to its excessively graphic content. I suppose being confronted with such a graphic analogy of redemption made my own depravity that much more evident in that I was willing to watch such a movie in its entirety. However, we should not watch such movies to make our depravity plain, for such an argument displays a total lack of comprehension of the depravity of a heart that has never even seen a movie. If we even hate, we have already murdered; if we even lust, we have already committed adultery. May we seek His face with a broken spirit and a contrite heart.

  • Jeremy Swanson

Jeremy Swanson holds a B.A. in political science from Hillsdale College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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