Chinese film-director Zhang Yimou is member of the Fifth Generation. The Fifth Generation itself is famous for its cinematography, specifically for the use of visual images, unusual camera movement, vivid contrasts, unusual framing and montages. The films of Fifth Generation have their ways of telling stories and narration, which is mostly done through allegory. Zhang Yimou himself emphasizes visual imagery and metaphors to convey the messages of his films to the audience. In his films one can observe the emphasis on the shot composition and color symbolism e.g. in "Raise the Red Lantern" bright red colored lantern is used to represent the wife which husband chooses to spend the night with , and the new wife which is wearing red wedding dress. (Lent, J.A. , Yin, X. n.d.)
Zhang's films often deal with the stories of peasant or common people (To live, 1994), (Ju Dou, 1990) He often touches the themes of love, betrayal and unhappiness (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991). In his late 50's Zhang Yimou turned to action movies, Wuxia genre, and directed (Hero, 2002) and (House of Flying Daggers, 2004).
House of Flying Daggers has won awards for Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, Outstanding Production Design and many more, reaching total worldwide box office gross of 92 million Dollars. Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, by Ang Lee), also an international success, still remains the highest-grossing foreign language film. (Wikipedia)
Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004) directed by Zhang Yimou and Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon (2000) directed by Ang Lee are the most famous and internationally renowned Wuxia films. Wuxia genre directly implies that film incorporates martial arts but if analyzed further word wuxia is composed of two characters. First Wu which describes the abovementioned martial arts action, and Xia which describes the protagonist of the film. Xia characters can be both from aristocratic or humble background. Generally these are martial arts masters who seek adventure and who fight for justice. Xia characters, just like knights, have their code of conduct which is guiding their beliefs, behavior and lifestyle. (An Introduction to Wuxia. n.d.)
House of Flying Daggers, if literally translated from Mandarin to English means "ambushed from ten directions" which perfectly describes the tension building up in the film when watching incredible fighting techniques, daggers flying through air and complicated combat scenes. (Brenner, J. n.d.)
The film tells a story of three main characters whose lives get entangled with one another. The element that unifies all three of them is the torment for love, their sorrow and devotion. The film shows that love cannot be based on time- span. One can find the love of his life during three days. The aim of the film is to show how the journey of love unfolds, what kind of sacrifices characters make for it and how tremendously the experience of love changes their inner self and their worldview.
The story takes place in china 859 AD during the reign of the Tang dynasty. The film portrays a corrupted and weak political situation in response to which an alliance called "house of the flying daggers" forms to overthrow the corrupted government. The Flying Daggers are a secret alliance composed of excellent martial-art warriors. Members of Flying Daggers are present everywhere in entertainment houses, even in the government system. Police Captain Leo (Andy Lau) also a member of Flying Daggers and Captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) receive an order to find and destroy the new leader of the Flying Daggers in ten days. They start their quest by visiting Peyony Pavillion to take a closer look at the blind dancer Mei (Zhang Ziyi) who is suspected to be the member of the Flying Daggers.
The dramatic structure starts to evolve right after Captain Leo suggests Captain Jin rescues imprisoned Mei , gains her trust and by escorting her leads them to the bigger reward- the trail of the Flying Daggers. The undercover plan only lasts three days but these three days are what leads to the culmination of the film. During these days Captain Leo suffers immensely and endures sleepless nights as he witnesses the love of his life flirting and bonding with another man. Captain Jin faces dilemma of choosing sides. As due to General's order he is forced to kill his own soldiers. The idea of killing his own people tortures him while love for Mei grows. He reaches the point of no return when he returns for her in the bamboo forest, knowing he will have to combat his own side again, but he does so for her. Mei, on the other hand, is struggling between love and gratitude toward Captain Leo who has saved her life multiple times and new growing affection toward Jin.
For intensifying the dramatic structure symbolism is used as a tool. One of the first symbols viewer witnesses is the song sung by Mei in the Peyony Pavillion.
"A rare beauty in the North, She's the finest lady on earth, A glance from her,
the whole city goes down. A second glance leaves the whole nation in ruins"
This is a metaphorical foreshadowing of the entire tragic love triangle. The Beauty in the North is Mei, whose beauty and love is destructive, ironically even for her. The song is sung in the beginning of the film as in the end, during the combat in the snow between three main characters, when Mei is dying.
One of the most impressive moments is the last scene in the snow. According to the director Zhing Yimou it was just a coincidence that it started snowing in October but it truly did make a wonderful addition to the visual aesthetics of the film. The last scene of snow can be perceived as a symbol. As the viewer sees how the forest of yellow, purple, green and red trees suddenly gets covered under a thick layer of pure white snow, it unfolds the culminating events to come. The pure white snow symbolizes the end and the new beginning. It is the end, as the snow gets covered with blood of three main characters. But it also symbolizes a new page, as that is the day of the great battle between the Flying Daggers and the government. It's a fresh start for all the others but it's the end for Leo, Jin and Mei.
In order to underline Zhang Yimou's techniques of symbolism and metaphorical portrayal of messages one must also discuss the form of dialogue in the film. From the dialogue in the Peyony Pavillion about Mei's name audience learns that the showgirls have taken the names of the flowers while Mei didn't. The reason for this according to Mei is that the showgirls are fake flowers, as real flowers grow in the wilderness. This is very interesting if one takes into consideration that Jin calls himself the Wind. So the two main characters are metaphorically referred to as a flower and the wind. The flower and wind metaphor follows the progress of Mei's and Jin's relationship and is recurring several times. First instance is when Jin takes Mei to the flower field "where the real flowers grow", makes her a flower bouquet and calls her the most beautiful flower among the field.
The metaphor of the wind is recurring in the conversation which Mei initiates in order to understand the intentions and feelings of Jin toward her. Jin tries to explain his feelings to her by referring to winds attributes, that wind is playful and carefree, moves around and leaves no traces and doesn't stay in one place. Reference to the wind once more emerges in the most dramatic moment of the film, when Leo stabs Mei lethally. Mei answers Leo's question and says that she wanted to be free as a wind, metaphorically referring to Jin and freedom of being with him.
The symbolism for Mei and Jin, as a flower and a wind, helps to communicate the traits of the characters to the audience.
Mei, a flower that grows in the wilderness portrays that her beauty, as her excellent martial arts skills are a deadly weapon for seduction and destruction. The fact that she is portrayed as sightless person elevates her importance and uniqueness. The best example of this is the scene of the echo game. When Captain Leo tosses single beans she flawlessly repeats the echoes of the drums by banging the sleeves of her dress onto the drums. After Captain Leo tosses entire bowl of beans onto the drums she demonstrates her exceptional skills in martial arts, and therefore is revealed to be a lot more than just a talented blind dancer.
Jin is the playful or carefree wind. He moves around and leaves no trace. His character is portrayed as a ladies men , who likes drinking, is playful, enjoys going to entertainment houses and is thus unable or not willing to commit. His character progresses as he settles, "the wind will stop at his will" and transforms into a devoted lover.
Leo is an undercover character who has endured much of the suffering. In his speech to Mei he reveals his feelings and sufferings saying he has been surviving day by day by the thought of Mei. He is a reliable and cautious character, who looks after Mei and saves her during the combat in the flower field. When his character progresses he turns mad with jealousy, partially blaming himself but the feeling of betrayal is so strong and pain so deep he just loses his mind, leading him to aggressively force Mei into making love to him, and later taking her life.
These three characters are unified by one more trait. All three of them are full of deceit. None of them appear to be what they have led the audience or each other to be.
When analyzing the characters themselves there is a certain context that these characters should be put into to fully understand the reasoning behind their behavior. All the three main characters are Xia warriors. Eight common attributes of Xia warriors are altruism, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth and desire for glory. These elements are very important to take into consideration as the characters of the Wuxia movies often display these traits. (An Introduction to Wuxia. n.d.)
The example of loyalty and betrayal in the warrior world is portrayed by the relationship of Mei and Leo. Mei could not allow herself to love Jin as she felt she would betray Leo, and due to high respect and gratitude for what he has done for her she rejects Jin in the forest. But as it becomes obvious that she fell in love with Jin , Leo becomes coldhearted and Mei has to pay the cost of her betrayal, her life.
Also what seems to be very interesting is according to what values and attributes do warriors establish trust among each other. When did Mei actually feels trust toward Jin and starts truly falling in love with him? Was it after he saved her life in the forest, or rescued her from the prison? The trust and love come to may after the fighting scene on the flower field, when General's soldiers attack Mei and Jin. This being a true, unforeseen and tense combat of dozen soldiers against two, Jin gets stabbed and this seems to be the point of him gaining Mei's trust and love. A perfect explanation of this situation is given by Shu-lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The experiences and the hard times partners face together brings them closer. Shu-lien fell in love with Li-Mu Bai as they have gone through many different hard times and fought together, apparently this is what warriors' value and what brings them closer - being there for each other through hard times and surviving them together as one. In addition to that Shu-lien's and Li-Mu bai's love story can also serve as a perfect example of warrior's code of conduct . Shu-lien and Li-Mu Bai are in love but they didn't have a chance to be together and be happy. The reason for this is revealed by Shu-lien who states that the men she loved , who was also Li-Mu bais brother[i], died and not to disrespect him and betray him they cannot allow themselves to be together. This is one of the examples of deep loyalty, friendship and self-control that warriors display as they deeply believe and let their principles guide them.
When mentioning these two films together, one should discuss two particular scenes which are of great importance and interest. The first scene is the fighting scene in the bamboo forest. First of all when seeing a bamboo forest in the martial art movie, it is like a foreshadowing of the upcoming battle. Bamboo forest has been used in House of the Flying Daggers where Mei and Jin are attacked by the Generals troops, and also in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where Li-Mu bai and Jen are fighting. There is an obvious similarity in these two scenes. Characters fight with their armor but also use the bamboo forest as tool to jump, walk on the thin branches, escape each other by bending the tree tops, flying from one tree to another or standing on / between two bamboo trees preserving composure and balance. In spite of the fact that audience anticipates the fighting style and techniques to be used, these scenes are still breathtaking due to the mastery of the actors, also due to the amazing colors and the lighting of the forest.
Another scene which will also be discussed is the bathing scene of Mei. Jin, while in the forest, constructs a little pond of fresh water, gathers leaves and suggests Mei take a bath. Mei decides to take a bath, and to make her let her guard down Jin proposes that he will let Mei keep track of where he is by making sounds by his sword. And in the end he offers her fresh men clothing.
In Crouching Tiger there is also a bathing scene where Lo bandit from the desert suggests Jen to take a bath and to assure her of his good intentions he tells her he will sing so that she knows where he is. He too in the end offers her his fresh clothing.
Of course the two scenes unfold in different directions but still there are several elements worth mentioning which unite the two except for the basic similarities mentioned above. In these two movies both bathing scenes suggest and lead to a new kind of intimacy level and lead to a romantic affection between two characters Jin and Mei, and Jen and Lo. The beginning of new emotions and affection is seen right away in the Crouching Tiger as the characters make love and reveal their feelings soon after. In the House of Flying Daggers there is an attempt of intimacy though in this case Mei is faced with the burden of loyalty that she has toward Leo and therefore rejects Jin by being "cold as water". But beginning of the upcoming love between the two characters is starting from the bathing scene in both of the films.
Except for the beautiful landscapes and nature, setting in House of Flying Daggers is also one of the elements contributing to the visual aesthetics of the film. As the time frame of the film is during ancient times, Tang dynasty, every detail in the film is meticulously chosen to match the replica of the old times. The swords, the lather hand bracelets male characters wore, the pottery, the instruments played in the entertainment house and even the torture devices gave the impression of being made exactly during the ancient Tang dynasty by a handy craftsman.
The scene at the Payony Pavillion perfectly illustrated and set the mood of ancient China. There are interiors of elaborate richness, beautiful costumes, landscapes of mountain ranges, meadows and fields of snow. SpectacularCostumes designed by Emi Wada depicted women of Tang dynasty very well. Entertainment House is filled with high-class courtesans who are great singers, performers, know the rules of entertaining games and have respectable table manners. The costumes are fashionable, colorful, with beautiful ornaments. Courtesans have their hair brushed up with an edifice above the forehead, hair decorated with extravagant head combs and jewelry.
In addition to visual aesthetics of the film there are different sounds used in the movie to achieve the effect of tension, excitement and make the viewer listen and watch the film in absolute silence. The example of this is the sounds of water droplets and crystalline curtains in the Peyony Pavillion. Also sounds of flying bamboos, falling leaves, sound of sword cutting the air - all these elements are mostly used when Mei is in the epicenter of the fight. As during the half of the film she is perceived and portrayed as a sightless warrior every above mentioned sound is perceived as a clue of what she listens to and notices in order to coordinate, and how she perceives the environment in order to defend herself against the enemy.
Zhang Yimou has his way of storytelling through visual imagery, which can be also observed in his early works. He uses de-centered compositions, sometimes also obscure angles, utilizes little details such as lighting, sound, strong and beautiful scenery to portray minimal plot and strengthen the dramatic effect. His stories can be perceived as fables which are in a sense enigmatic and have ambiguous endings. He uses color and composition to bring out the oriental mood of ancient china.
His intention with House of Flying Daggers was to show the fate of three main characters who sacrificed everything beginning with their loyalty to their duties, their roles in society, their beliefs, and in the end their lives for love. He showed how the inner world of these characters changed and crashed in misery. As he says :" People in misery have deep meanings, People in misery is what is most important in art" (Zhang Yimou Interview, 2002). Their misery is depicted in very powerful way which brings out empathy in audience.
After the analysis of various elements I can say that Zhang Yimou successfully conveyed his film's message and anguish of the characters very skillfully and in a very touching manner. The actor's excellent performance made it very authentic to feel empathy and sorrow. And the overall aesthetical part of the film made a striking and long lasting and impression.
- An Introduction to Wuxia. (n.d.) Retrieved February 3, 2010, from http://www.heroic-cinema.com/eric/xia.html
- Brenner, J. (n.d.) Retrieved February 3, 2010, from http://variagate.com/fdaggers.htm
- Farquhar, M. (2002). Senses of Cinema, Zhang Yimou. Retrieved February 3,2010, from http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/zhang.html
- House of Flying Daggers. . (n.d.) Retrieved February 3, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_the_Flying_Daggers
- Lent, J.A. , Yin, X. (n.d.) Fifth Generation. Retrieved February 3, 2010, from http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Academy-Awards-Crime-Films/China-FIFTH-GENERATION.html#ixzz0eR426n0t
- Verstappen, S.(n.d.) The Way of the Shadows: Martial Arts Training for the Blind Warrior. Retrieved February 3, 2010, from http://www.jadedragon.com/archives/blindwar.html
- Yimou Zhang Biography. (n.d.) Retrieved February 3, 2010, from http://www.filmreference.com/film/60/Yimou-Zhang.html
- Zhang Yimou Interview.(2002) Retrieved February 3, 2010, from http://www.monkeypeaches.com/hero/interview01.html