China 859 AD, the mysterious House of Flying Daggers leads a rebellion against a corrupt government. News reaches military captain Leo that one of the members of the House can be found in a local brothel. Hatching a plan to capture the rebel, Leo sends one his men, Jin, to the establishment. This leads to the imprisonment of the beautiful blind girl Mei. Aided by Jin, Mei escapes and they embark on a perilous journey across the region in the hope of locating the rebel base. Meanwhile Captain Leo and his soldiers pursue the pair.
The most prolific of the fifth generation of Chinese film-makers,1 Zhang Yimou garnered acclaim in the West as Chinese film began to become famous outwith its own borders during the late 1980s. His early strand of cinema such as Red Sorghum (1987) was notable for combining overt political criticism through easily read allegorisation married to bold aesthetics. During this period, his films were well received in domestic arenas and by overseas ‘arthouse’ audiences. Contrastingly, House of Flying Daggers facilitated a shift to mainstream appreciation for the director in the West while disappointing ticket sales within mainland China indicated that local audiences had grown weary of Zhang’s newfound enthusiasm for refashioning the Wuxia epic.2 In addition, many Chinese critics harshly judged the film as a calculated addition to the post millennium trend for revitalising traditional forms for Western consumption: filled with exoticist thematics and orientalist imagery that hoped to opportunistically facsimile the global success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).3
Such accusations are problematic. From the silent era, the Wuxia film has been exotic by its nature and has always attracted local audiences with an overt attention to the aesthetically ambitious, sensational and epic married to technological advances (Szeto 2011: 21). Zhang earnestly pays heed to this mindset with beautifully choreographed action scenes situated in lavishly saturated set-pieces that maintain an impetus on the attraction of the fantastic. The dynamic nature of the many combat scenes that litter the narrative concede to an eclectic mix of indigenous and transnational forms: an amalgamation that typifies his enthusiasm for a cosmopolitan approach to filmmaking. For instance, the extravagant displays of fighting styles find their roots in Chinese operatic forms in which spectacle and body performance enchanted audiences through dance-like combat.4 This is adroitly aligned with Hollywood computer graphics technology and a kinteticism typical of Japanese ‘beat-em-up’ video games.
When analysing the text there is a danger of unwittingly permitting the film’s inherent grandiose qualities to overshadow interpretation. If we are to understand the film more fully we need to investigate the economic and political motivations behind the content. In effect, we need to intertwine aesthetic qualities with an examination of China’s eagerness for post-socialist market-orientated cultural and economic reform: a financially dictated ethos accentuated by entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. In doing so we can view the film as symptomatic of a national film industry propped up by the state that actualises a model that both mimics and resists the Hollywood blockbuster.
In a state-backed drive to emulate the recent ‘soft’ cultural power of other East-Asian territories5 and to regain moviegoers at home lost to the increasing influx of Hollywood cinema, the Chinese film industry has negotiated rather than resisted the American blockbuster. With an emphasis on gaining audiences through the fantastic and lavish set-pieces, the Wuxia film arguably already shared some of the characteristics intrinsic to the Hollywood blockbuster. As such, the genre easily moulds itself to an excessive faith in a big-budget and high-concept mentality.
In this ongoing process of ‘contested transaction’ (Berry and Farquar 2006: 208), the ‘Diapan’/ Chinese blockbuster has become a lucrative export. Despite disappointing audience figures at home and censure from Chinese critics such as Yingjin Zhang who condemns the Diapan picture as characterised by ‘largely shallow content behind their alluring façade of audiovisual treats’ (Yingjin 2010: 177) this increasingly internationalised model of film-making has risen to become the most popular foreign national cinema in the West (Rosen 2010: 42).
As the Diapan picture continues to demonstrate an eagerness for international influences, defining national cinema requires elasticity beyond the limits of geographically bound demarcations. Although the production companies were based in China, House of Flying Daggers was partly filmed in the Ukraine, had international production and artistic staff and benefited from global distribution from major Hollywood studios. A more appropriate definition of this work might be found in one that acknowledges local and transnational influences in both the production process and final text while interrelating the unmistakable ambition of the Chinese film industry to compete with Hollywood product. Perhaps Klein’s favoured term, ‘global Chinese-language film’ (2007: 189) makes the most viable attempt to summarise the text as exemplar of the recent radicalisation of the Chinese cultural economy.
Distinguished from the Martial-Arts and KungFu film by its pronounced use of the fantastic, particular historical settings, swordplay, and chivalrous characters, the Wuxia genre has maintained its popularity by adapting itself to pronounced social and political allegorisation as fits the time period. The text continues this route but mischievously deviates from generic frameworks so as to offer up some novel approaches that are indicative of a willingness to open up the genre to global audiences. Although this is symptomatic of the economically motivated sanctions endorsed by the ethics of the new model of global Chinese-language film, we have to merge these with directorial initiative to gain a more rounded understanding. Zhang is adept at breaking through the rigidity of commercial genre structure to focus on humanist perspectives and personal emotional conflict. For instance, Shanghai Triad (1995) pertains to be just another violent mobster movie but beneath a curtain of generic expectations lies a gracious parable on the cyclical nature of cruelty. As he has claimed of House of Flying Daggers, ‘I don’t want to make an ordinary martial arts film. I want to talk about passion, interesting characters … my own style of Wuxia film’ (2003: 9).
The smog of civil unrest and discord surrounds the tale and the first act promises a predominately political construct. This is a promise unfulfilled. We find out that the underground alliance is rebelling but we never get to learn what against: details of corrupt government deeds are enduringly inconspicuous and factions remain largely unheeded by political leaders. In substitution, Western style romance becomes an ever-prominent motif as the narrative progresses.
The inclusion of the ‘swords-woman’ hero is not unique to the text and traditionally romantic relationships have simply served as a conduit for larger overarching themes such as the political and economic (Gomes 2010: 171). Revisioning accustomed forms, the text finds parallels with the recent glut of post-millennium Wuxia6 by dramatically foregrounding this Western-style romance (albeit one marred by deceit and deception). Accentuating this inclusion has softened the masculinist overtones previously typical of the genre and ousted spectatorship from the enclaves of cult appreciation in the West outward to a multiplicity of audiences.
Centralising on the love triangle enacted by Mei, Jin and Captain Leo at the expensive of political detail also facilitates a contemporary allegorical reading. Rather than remaining apolitical, the text actually forges meaning from absence. Through the narrative personal lives entwine and ideals of commitment to revolution and political power structures are lost to the pursuit of individual happiness. As China continues a consumer-based post-socialist modernisation process with the personal increasingly replacing the political perhaps Zhang has cynically fashioned a text that mirrors shifting values within modern Chinese society.
As subterfuge and heightened emotion become ever prominent themes within the narrative, nature and landscape become of vital importance when reading the film in the context of Zhang’s authorial signature and the influence of classical Chinese arts. Possibly the most constant factor in his oeuvre, Zhang’s work has always opened itself up to easily read metaphorical interpretation. Continuing this leitmotif, emotions are externalised through barren woodlands and flowering pastures and melancholy concludes with meadows blanketed by snow that engulf the lovers’ final confrontation. These broad strokes run the risk of seeming crude but the sparse constitution of the script favours space for laden symbolism.
Elsewhere Zhang spotlights nature and landscape as devices for respite from the perils that plague the journey to the House of Flying Daggers’ headquarters. With Leo and his soldiers in close pursuit of Mei and Jin these are only fleeting moments soon to be punctured by conflict from the outside world. Elsewhere, bird’s-eye shots of grand vistas that diminish characters punctuate the narrative. Such compositions extend local cultural patterns familiar to the mediums of early poetry and painting and continue Daoist beliefs in nature as a place of solace and harmony with humans as just one element in the grander scheme of life.7
Zhang’s liberal use of these classical techniques is noteworthy: these devices confirm both a return to the quintessential visual style of his early cinema and further a fondness for local forms within his work. As he has said, ‘If in twenty years, after I’ve made a lot more films, they write one more sentence about me in a textbook, I’d be satisfied if they said: “Zhang Yimou’s cinematic style is strongly visual in a distinctly Chinese fashion”’ (2008: 148). This claim may seem at odds in a text so beholden to transnational influences and global spectatorship. But it is this synergy of the local and international that makes House of Flying Daggers such a fascinating text.
1. These include Chen Kaige, Hu Mei, Tia Zhuangzhuang, Wu Ziniu, Zhang Juazhao, Zhang Yimou and Zhou Xiaoien.
2. See Braester, Yomi (2005) ‘Chinese Cinema in The Age of Advertisement: the Filmmaker as a Cultural Broker’, The China Quarterly, 183, pp. 549–64.
3. Zhang claims that he had prepared both Hero and House of The Flying Daggers before the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.
4. See the discussion of this aspect of the film in Chris Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar’s China on Screen, pp. 47–74.
5. In particular, the recent global popularity of South Korean entertainment often termed as the ‘Hanryu’.
6. Alongside Zhang’s work these include The Banquet (Xiaogong Feng, 2006), The Promise (Kaige Chen, 2005) and Seven Swords (Hark, Tsui, 2005).
7. See the chapter by Woo Cho Yi-Yu, Catherine, in Chris Berry (ed.) Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, pp. 197– 1.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: China. Production Company: Beijing New Picture Film Co, China Film Co-production Corporation, Edko Film, Elite Group Enterprises and Zhang Yimou Studio. Director: Zhang Yimou. Editor: Cheng Long. Screenwriters: Bin Wang, Feng Li and Zhang Yimou. Cinematographer: Zhao Xiaoding. Cast: Andy Lau (Leo), Takeshi Kaneshino (Jin), Ziyi Zhang (Mei).]
Chris Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar, China on Screen, New York, Columbia University Press, 2006. Catherine Gomes, ‘Lost in Translation: American Critical Audience and the Transnational Chinese Swordswoman’, in Dong, Lan (ed.), Transnationalism and The Asian-American Heroine. Essays on Literature, Film Myth and Media, North Carolina, McFarland, 2010, pp. 168–86.
Christina Klein, ‘Kung Fu Hustle: Transnational production and the global Chinese-language film’, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 1: 3, 2007, pp. 189–208.
Lo Kwai-Cheung, Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions, Albany, SUNY Press, 2010.
Stanley Rosen, ‘Chinese Cinema’s International Market’, in S. Rosen and Ying Zhu, (eds), Art, Politics and Commerce in Chinese Cinema, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2010, pp. 35–54.
Kin-Yun Szeto, The Martial Arts Cinema of Chinese Diaspora: Ang Lee, John Woo and Jackie Chan in Hollywood, Illinois, Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.
Stephen Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
Catherine Woo Cho Yi-Yu, ‘The Chinese Montage: From Poetry and Painting to the Silver Screen’, in Chris Berry (ed.), Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, London, BFI, 1991, pp. 21–9.
Zhang Yimou, ‘Beyond the Fifth Generation: An Interview with Zhang Yimou’, Cardullo, Bert, Out of Asia: Essays and Interviews, Newcastle-uponTyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008, pp. 127–50.
Zhang Yimou, Sony Classics: House of Flying Daggers press kit, 2003. Available at http://sonyclassics. com/houseofflyingdaggers/_media/presskit.pdf (accessed 20 July 2012).
Yingjin Zhang, Cinema, Space and Polylocality in a Globalizing China, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2010.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.