By Ryan Reynolds
The recent Sabine Wren-focused episodes of Star Wars Rebels, “Trials of the Darksaber” and “Legacy of Mandalore” have been met with serious praise from fans. There’s something unique about them, something fresh.These episodes explore in great honesty the nuances of the student-master relationship. The theme of a young woman cast out by her family for doing the right thing has resonated with viewers, even within a franchise ripe with familial drama. There is new mythology introduced regarding the Darksaber, and consequently stunning lightsaber are duels are fought. Kevin Kiner’s music has reached new, gorgeous peaks; it tells us the weight of Sabine’s past in ways that her words can’t, even as beautiful as the dialogue for these episodes has been.
And each of these things have ties to another story about a young woman rebelling against the expectations of her family and the society in which she lives: Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The first point of correlation is just how Star Wars-y the title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actually is. It’s a translation of a Chinese idiom about a circumstance full of unnoticeable masters. Of course there is the obvious, broad application to Star Wars: the treachery of Palpatine hidden from the Jedi by the cloud of the dark side, among other dark side examples. But the idea can also be reversed if you consider Luke to be a master in the metaphorical sense, hidden from Palpatine for years until he was ready to fulfill his destiny amidst the galactic conflict. You could call Sabine a hidden master in the same vein, considering her unexpected ascent in the series to possibly lead and unite Mandalore against the Empire, or at the very least play a significant role in finding a leader for Mandalore as the ending of “Legacy of Mandalore” implied she will.
Beyond the title, both Crouching Tiger and Rebels, and in particular the “Trials of the Darksaber” episode, are obsessed with the dynamics of the student-master relationship. The film presents a range of ideas and examples from hero Li Mu Bai’s devotion to his murdered master and his interest in taking on Jen, the protagonist-villain of the film, to her toxic relationship with her secret, villainous master Jade Fox, who seeks learning and knowledge of her own. In turn, Jade Fox’s failed stint with her former master is also placed under the microscope of Crouching Tiger’s masterful storytelling. In “Trials,” we are treated to not just the training and development of Sabine, but also the growth that Kanan has made as a teacher. We see him learn and adjust as he seeks to help Sabine confront her past and possible future. That Li Mu Bai also struggles to connect with his pupil is yet another parallel.
In terms of character, there are some ties between Rebels’ Sabine and Crouching Tiger’s Jen. While the characterizations of each are quite different, both characters come from a family circumstance where the expectation is for them to do or be something that is not in their nature. For Jen, it is marrying someone whom she does not love and to live a life of domesticity. For Sabine, it is to continue serving the Empire and the will of her family. Additionally, both characters are used by villainous entities, making themselves complicit in villainous acts. Sabine made weapons for the Empire that were used against her own people, while the villainous Jade Fox and her tutelage lead Jen astray, ultimately pitting her against her family and the film’s other protagonists, inspiring her to steal the Green Destiny sword. While Jen is portrayed for a time as more outwardly villainous than Sabine, it’s not difficult to make a reasonable comparison.
Speaking of the Green Destiny, it is no coincidence that Rebels reintroduces and deepens our understanding of one of Star Wars’ own swords of significance, the Darksaber. Legendary weapons in fantasy story-telling are generally not just weapons of unusual power, but also symbols of power. In Rebels, the Darksaber is so important Mandalorian history and leadership that we are led to believe that by wielding it alone, Sabine might have a chance at uniting Mandalore against the Empire. In Crouching Tiger, the Green Destiny sword is a vicious blade, slicing through many of the weapons of its opponents, in addition to being the famed blade and legacy of a fallen warrior. It draws further parallels to the Darksaber when in the sequel to the original, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, a blind enchantress arrives to tell warlord Hades Dai that if he is to rule, he must obtain the Green Destiny. In both films, multiple characters fight to protect, steal, or wield the Green Destiny, much like the Darksaber throughout its appearances in Star Wars.
In addition to the shared use of the legendary weapon trope, there are some similarities between the actual fight scenes in the show and film. When Kanan fights Sabine in “Trials of the Darksaber,” he engages at times with one hand wielding his lightsaber and his other behind his back. This is a clear visual queue to a fight in Crouching Tiger between Li Mu Bai and Jen, in which he also fights with his hand behind his back. The major fight scene in “Legacy of Mandalore”, which takes place on ice, is also reminiscent of a similarly set fight in Sword of Destiny. The creates an opportunity for a gorgeous fight backdrop and the addition of a second antagonist, the threat of the freezing water below.
And finally, the music in these episodes might be the most obvious cue to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Kevin Kiner’s heart wrenching use of the solo cello, the sweet and sensitive use of the harp, and his exhilarating employment of drums in Rebels is the same kind of instrumentation that Tan Dun used in his award-winning score for Crouching Tiger. In fact, the intervallic makeup of the main theme Kiner applies to Sabine is so reminiscent of the solo cello theme in Crouching Tiger that it is almost impossible to consider it an accident. Listen to the recently released track “Sabine Suite”, and then compare it with the following two tracks from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack, “Silk Road” and “Farewell”.
None of this is to suggest that Rebels has cheated or done anything wrong. Star Wars has a rich history of drawing influence from great cinema, particularly eastern cinema. Given the acclaim these recent Star Wars Rebels episodes have received and the extent to which they draw from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is hard not to appreciate just how well Rebels has carried on this Star Wars tradition of cinematic influence.