House of Flying Daggers – Messages about Gender in a WuXia Film

“House of Flying Daggers,” the English title of Zhang Yimou’s 2004 film, suggests an action-driven martial arts movie filled with life-and-death struggles.  In fact, for an American audience with some familiarity with the ‘wuxia’ genre (i.e. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero,” etc.) the standard tropes of aestheticized violence and superhuman stunts are central expectations for such a film.  The Chinese title “十面埋伏” (‘ambush from all sides’) also suggests a similar kind of ‘wuxia’ action film.  Although the film does play to some of these expectations for both audiences, the majority of the plot unfolds in a series of tangled romantic relationships.  The most integral ‘flying daggers’ in the film are symbolic; the ‘ambush from all sides’ occurs as much in romance as it does in battle.  The conflicting romantic interests and relationships of Mei, Leo, and Jin unfurl themselves at knifepoint, ending with broken hearts as often as with bloody deaths.

The first half of the film unravels very much like we would expect a martial arts ‘wuxia’ film to unravel.  The romance first seems to fulfill its expected role as secondary side-plot.  Although Mei’s blindness initially surprises Jin, it soon merely becomes a part of Mei’s feminine intrigue.  As Jin remarks with incredulity, “Blind? Then she must be special. I’m curious.”  Her apparent physical ‘defect’ arouses his interest.  Perhaps she is the daughter of the late ruler of the “House of Flying Daggers.” And perhaps underneath her helpless surface lurks some untold, mysterious power.  It is this possibility of great power lurking under a helpless surface that piques Jin’s interest, transforming an everyday assignment into genuine romantic interest.

House of Flying Daggers Poster

House of Flying Daggers Poster, via imdb

As Mei first enters the room, she nervously saunters toward Jin.  As she nears him, he draws his sword, and caresses her helpless, (supposedly) unseeing face.  His drunken fumbling meets deliberate sword strokes to express an emphatically phallic power that is simultaneously careful and careless.  As she tries to resist his advances, he asks her, “don’t you know the rules?” implying that heis the ‘rules,’ and that her only option is to submit.  Then, she sings to him “A rare beauty in the north, she’s the finest lady on earth. / A glance from her, the whole city falls; a second glance leaves the whole nation in ruins”, with a prophetic wink toward those who know her true identity.  Her beauty, masked by her seeming powerlessness, in fact gives her the ability to strike from a position of passivity.  As Mei finishes her song, Jin leaps out, and grabs her in a sexual outburst.  The dropped dishes, screaming bystanders, and generally chaotic mise en scene indicate that Jin’s attempt at physical dominance has become an embarrassing social faux pas. Leo then storms in and arrests both Mei and Jin.  Their power ploys – his enacted physically and hers enacted through enticement – are both subverted with Leo’s use of judicial authority; by interrupting the scene, he overrules both.  (Recall Jin’s “Don’t you know the rules?”) This move takes on an additional air of irony when we consider that Leo is competing with Jin for Mei’s affection.  Already latent in this first scene in the Peony Pavilion, an “ambush from all sides” lurks beneath these seemingly harmless bits of flirtation and other ‘innocuous’ interactions.

The ‘echo game’ that follows Mei’s and Jin’s meeting once again showcases just such a bit of mysterious/feminine power that comes intertwined with Mei’s blindness.  Her dancing, acrobatics, and acute hearing make her an even match for Leo, who smirks as she somehow manages to match his every move.  Her hearing, memory, and dancing accuracy each extend beyond ordinary human powers, amplified by her supposed blindness.  In fact, her ‘blindness’ imparts to Mei these mysterious skills along with a dependency upon those who guide her, pick flowers for her, and protect her.

Halfway through the film, all of this interplay between masculine power, embodied in Mei, Jin, and Leo alternatively, takes an unexpected twist: the madam of the peony pavilion reveals herself as a leading member of the House of Flying Daggers, pressures Jin to admit his interest in Mei, and then proposes to become the matchmaker for their marriage.  Unsure how to react, Jin takes a passive role in the conversation.  Only very reluctantly does he reveal his vulnerable side to the Madam and agree with an uncertain smile to marry Mei.  Then, suddenly, nets fall from above, capturing Jin.  He discovers that he has been the victim of a plot larger than the one he had imagined.  Then, adding insult to injury, Mei walks obediently into the scene, kneels beside the madam, and with a dramatic chord struck in the music, we see tea poured accurately into a cup several feet below.  Leo’s and Jin’s astonished faces confirm our suspicions: Mei is not in fact blind.  Jin realizes that his ‘plan’ to lead the Flying Daggers into a trap was truly their plan to trap him and that his seduction of Mei was truly her seduction of him.

At this moment, the typical behaviors and paradigms associated with (wo)manhood undergo a complete reversal in their power structures.  The matchmaker has not done Jin the honor of finding him a beautiful wife; she has captured him.  The giggling concubines of the Peony Pavilion have been replaced by the stoic (and deadly) presence of the members of the Flying Daggers. Jin himself no longer laughs carelessly as a connoisseur of concubines – rather, he squirms about on the floor, more helpless than the woman he has twice nearly forced himself upon. Finally, and most shockingly, Mei’s subservient gesture of pouring tea for the madam has become a sign not of submission, but of power; she is not just serving tea, she is revealing that she has outwitted Jin.

Interestingly, Jin’s subservient gesture of pouring tea reveals that her power exists not in her abilities as a courtesan (singing, pouring tea, dancing, etc.) but in her cunning.  The feminine (and passive) power we expect her to wield has been replaced by a power of mental dominance over her male counterpart.  This dichotomy of power (between mysterious skills and mental cunning) brings to mind a saying that Joan Judge traces to 16th Century China: “A man with virtue is a man of talent, a woman without talent is a woman of virtue.” (男子有德便是才,女子无才便是德) As Judge relates, this virtue/talent binary underwent dramatic changes and experimentation in early 20th Century China, as women sought to redefine the proper roles of womanhood with respect to the nation.[1]  In “House of Flying Daggers” Mei’s seemingly subservient behavior (or ‘lack of talent’) turns out to be an abundance of actual mental acuteness.  This cunning or ‘abundance of talent’ proves to be her most powerful – and not to mention life-saving – quality.  However we might have conceptualized them as we began watching the film, Zhang Yimou has inverted our expectations for feminine behavior and power.[2]

In the final portion of “House of Flying Daggers, the male/female power struggles begin to grow even more complicated. (In case they were not already complicated enough) Leo’s and Mei’s playful flirting turns sour when Leo attempts to force Mei to submit to him sexually. Although he attempts to spin the situation into one in which he is the victim to Mei – “I was all alone for three years” – his attempts to stifle her expression of agency (by ignoring her hand pushing up against his mouth) result in an attempted rape. The scene mirrors the one between Mei and Jin at the beginning of the film; nearly every element, down to the framing of the shot echoes a scene in which Jin tried to force himself on Mei. But this time, the overpowering male force gets a knife in his back.  Strangely, Mei is willing to ignore Jin’s similar show of brutish indifference to her agency, falling in love with him by the end of the film.  In the conclusion, each character is somehow bound to take the actions they do.  Whether by their own desire to seek revenge, the necessity of protecting a lover, or by some irresistible attraction to one another, each of these characters seems to be forced to follow the course of actions they do. While each does what seems most honorable or romantic to him or her, the result is Mei and Leo dead, Jin wounded, and all the relationships destroyed.

Zhang Yimou’s “ambush from all sides” results in a bitter finale, perhaps commenting on the brutishness of these male/female power struggles.  As Jin stumbles over a snow-covered hill in the final shot of the film, a canvas of white envelopes the frame.  It is as if our director is stating that death (symbolized in the color white) is the result such vying for sexual power.  The praising anthem from earlier in the film, now takes on a more sinister tone: “A rare beauty in the north, she’s the finest lady on earth. / A glance from her, the whole city falls; a second glance leaves the whole nation in ruins.”  Once again, our director inverts whatever conceptions we may have initially held about this song.  Even the woman, who would seem to have the most agency of all involved, has lost her life, eliminating the meaning of that agency altogether.  Zhang Yimou, rather than attempt to ‘create’[3] or ‘reinvent’ masculine and feminine subjectivities in “The House of Flying Daggers,” has related the tragedy of expressing those subjectivities through plays of power.

[1] Judge, Joan.  “Talent, Virtue, and the Nation: Chinese Nationalisms and Female Subjectivities in the Early Twentieth Century.” (2-3)

[2] How might these inversions change when we consider the international ‘gaze’ or international consumption? Perhaps Chinese perceptions of national culture or heritage also undergo a bit of an inversion by the end of the film.  And perhaps from the American side, perceptions of subservient or passive female-hood in the East undergo a similar inversion.

[3] Could Zhang Yimou create subjectivity on behalf of Mei? Or any of the actors/actresses, for that matter? Could he create any subjectivity other than his own, as expressed through his status as auteur?


About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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