Zhang Yimou’s recent career path looks certainly surprising. Consider his Hero (2002), a film about assassins who are attempting to kill the king of an ancient Chinese kingdom who (we know, as a matter of history) is to unite the whole of China under one power. The film is not about failed assassination attempts, however. Rather, it tells how the assassins gave up their original cause, and their lives, voluntarily, for the greater good of ceasing conflicts to unify the country. The film celebrates their “heroic” decisions to renounce their individual causes for the greater good. Though one may or may not have sympathy for such a belief, it is not a manifestly repugnant message on the face of it. But what’s surprising (and rather repugnant in its implication) is that the film starts out declaring the king to be a despot. And the film ends up having very little dramatic credibility, if at all, in that the reasons for the assassins’ change of mind are never sufficiently dealt with, and we are asked to believe that the despot suddenly comes to an awareness of the meaning of peace and harmony because of the mercy shown by the assassins.
Of course, there have been attempts to make the sense out of the film in a less “obvious” way: that it expresses a sentiment more philosophical in nature, in that the characters are not renouncing their individual selves for the sake of enlightening a despot but that they are deliberately assuming the position of the weak to counteract the strong, in a “Taoist” sense, where privation is privileged over possession (i.e., “nothing” is better than “something”). But the rationale is in the end unconvincing, because it is not one character in the film that chooses surrender, but all the characters force themselves on it as the most desirable choice of action. And, furthermore, they are not “not-acting” to let the nature of things follow its own course, but are all choosing to die, to merely allow the person who is craving power to achieve the power. It becomes very difficult to not see the film as a pæan to nationalism, rather than peace in general, for it is not questioned whether real peace is possible under a despot. And if one was moved by Zhang’s films, such as To Live (1994), due to their humanity, Hero becomes quite surprising since it is very much antithetical to the values of such films.
If one was surprised (in a negative way) by Hero, one could not have been excited by the prospect of House of Flying Daggers (2004), yet another martial-arts themed period film. And the critical consensus on House of Flying Daggers seems to be that, while it is a seductive spectacle, it simply doesn’t attempt anything resembling significance, let alone an incoherent mixture of nationalist sentiment and Taoist ideas. What has been lauded as its virtue is that it is rather silly overall and one can distance oneself from the actual content of the movie, and the characters and their predicaments, and just enjoy the surface. I think the judgment is too quick; I find the film moving, and think it’s a good deal deeper than other recent, ambitious attempts to make a more “substantial” martial arts film, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994).
What is the film about, exactly? And is the content of the film, quite apart from the exigencies of the martial-arts genre, silly in itself? The film does feature some fantastic action sequences (that are nevertheless far bloodier and “messier” than those in Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but what is also surprising is that it barely contains more than three characters of significance; this is not a large-scaled film, but an uncharacteristically intimate one, as martial arts films go.
As the film begins, it gives you the impression that it will be about battles between a senescent, corrupt government and a resistance group. But the film instead concentrates on two characters, a police captain, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and the supposed daughter of the rebel group’s dead leader, now working in a brothel, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), belonging to the opposing sides of the battle, who fall in love with each other. And their relationship involves multiple deceptions regarding their real identities and motives, as well as the real identity and motives of the third character, Jin’s partner, Leo (Andy Lau), who turns out to be Mei’s lover, and a mole planted by the rebel group, who ends up being despondent over Mei’s growing love for Jin. By its latter third, the film all but completely abandons the original premise of the battle between the government and the rebels, and becomes a tale of love triangle. And the film ends with the three characters battling one another.
Then, how does the film end, and what does it exactly say about what the film is truly interested in? The first impression is that the film is a tragic love story between two people belonging to the opposing sides of social order, with the former lover of one of them as a villain. But this can’t be the case, or the film’s “tragedy” is not that of two people’s love being impeded by social order, represented by a jealous villain who wants to eliminate both of them, for the ending, if attentively considered, does not really say this. Why? Leo kills Mei, because of her choosing of Jin over him; and Jin, discovering Mei’s death, directs his fury at Leo, who does likewise. During a prolonged battle where the two are nearly mortally wounded, it turns out that Mei is not dead but sufficiently alive to try to save the life of the man whom she “truly” loves. Mei orders Leo, who is aiming a dagger at Jin, to let Jin go, and warns Leo that, if he kills Jin, she will throw the dagger – that Leo threw at her still stuck in her heart – to kill him. Jin tells Mei not to pull the dagger out, because it will drain the blood and kill her, and he throws his weapon away and walks toward Leo, telling her that, if he is closer to Leo than she is to Leo, she cannot save him by killing Leo; in effect, he is conceding his life in order to save Mei’s life. And Leo, in the end, does not throw the dagger but only feigns it with a throwing motion, in effect provoking Mei to throw her dagger at him. Thus, he too wants to die. But Mei does not throw the dagger at Leo to kill him but in the direction of where Leo’s dagger would have been had he thrown it at Jin, in order to knock it out of its course. Therefore, she wanted to save the life of Jin, even if it meant her own death, and could not bring herself to kill Leo either. It is she, and not either of the men, who dies.
So if you examine the ending with a bit more care, it seems to be about three people who, after realizing that their love cannot be consummated, each choose to die for the sake of the person whom she or he loves, rather than about two people whose love can’t be consummated because of the social order that does not allow their love. But this interpretation does not mesh either, for there is much ambiguity in the ways the three characters react to one another.
If the ending is trying to say that all three are trying to die for the person whom he or she loves, the questions still remain. If Mei had no intention of killing Leo in the end, then why did she threaten to kill Leo? And Leo’s action simply can’t mean that he is trying to save the life of Mei by his death, for if he does die at her hands then this will result in her death as well. Did he just want to die at the hands of the woman whom he still loves? But if that was what he wanted, his decision to not throw the dagger to kill Jin makes no difference, for he would’ve been killed by Mei had he killed Jin also.
When you see the three characters’ reactions after the initial threat by Mei, you can see that they are acting in cross-purposes. When Mei threatens to pull the dagger out to kill Leo, and Jin tells her to not to do so, and throws his weapon away and walks towards Leo, both Mei and Leo (who doesn’t believe that Jin’s love for her is genuine) flinch in surprise, as if he is doing something unexpected. And the fact that Mei shakes her head tearfully as Jin moves closer towards Leo suggests that her threat was intended to merely end their conflict, wishing that Leo, fearing his death, would let Jin go, rather than satiating his hatred toward Jin, and that Jin would be willing to leave her. But it turns out that she has quite underestimated the extents of both men’s love, for they are simply unable to let go of her, even at the cost of their (and her) deaths. Jin, instead of letting go of her as she wanted, chooses to put his life in the hands of Leo, who wants to kill him, to not see her die, quite blind to the fact that his choice is compelling her to use her dagger. And Leo also chooses death at the hands of Mei who wants to kill him, not to “just” die, but also to prove to her that he still loves her, by obeying her order to let Jin go, even though he can’t bring himself to simply let go of her (and let them be, since she will die).
But Mei had no real intention to kill Leo, quite contrary to Leo’s belief, and eventually was willing to die for both Jin and him, given that she chooses to save Jin and let Leo live, rather than kill Leo (to either save Jin’s life, or out of vengeance if he kills Jin) as she warned; and Mei actually smiles to Leo before she dies, seeing that Leo still loves her, quite contrary to her belief. And realizing her true intention, and the foolishness of his choice, Leo sheds tears.
It is shown in the earlier scene where Mei frees captured Jin that she wants him to forget her, despite her love towards him (again, she is trying to end the conflict between the three of them), for after they make love she warns him that if they meet again one of them has to die (and it is also shown that her heart is torn between the two men before the ending, for in the same scene Jin says there must be a man she has a hard time leaving behind, and she agrees, and cannot answer Jin’s query about whether she still loves him), and she refuses to take his offer to run away together. Mei “seemingly” follows Jin, however, after much deliberation, and she gets stabbed in the heart by a dagger thrown by Leo. But it turns out that she was not following Jin, but was in fact simply seeking “freedom” from her predicament, even if it equals death, for it is made clear that she “knew” Leo was going to try to kill her if she followed Jin, so that she deliberately provoked Leo (i.e., she is putting her life in the hands of Leo, whom she has hurt, whether he lets go of her or not), who becomes furious at himself for not realizing this. And Jin, who can’t bring himself to just let go of Mei as she wanted, comes back for her, which causes the eventual confrontation between the three of them.
So when the film is seen more carefully, its tragedy is, though certainly not quotidian, not silly but actually quite human in scale and entirely logical within the framework of the three characters’ motives and choices, so that it could not have turned out any other way (i.e., none of them can find happiness even if Mei “comes back from the dead”). And, in the end, the film is exactly the opposite of the kind of love story that it’s been described as: for all its melodramatics, it is not a facile celebration of love stronger than social order, or even death, but is a reminder of the axiom that love in its purest form is something quite beyond the individual wills of the lovers, and its logical consequence, possessiveness, can only be destructive. The film suggests that the only way out of all-consuming love is not the consummation of desire, either in life or in death, but the extinguishing of that very desire, for, had Mei’s attempts to let go of both men succeeded, the three characters would’ve been freed from their bondage; but Jin’s and Leo’s attempts to affirm their love precisely cause the death of the object of their love.
In one sense, the film is not terribly different from Zhang’s The Road Home (1999), which told a simple story of a young woman putting herself and her beloved through a series of trials to prove her love to him, and vice-versa. But here, the subject becomes not love between two people lasting all their lives, but the tragic conflict between different sorts of love that a person feels: namely, love borne out sudden passion and love borne out of duty (towards a person, not “social duties”). But it is more emphatically a counterpoint to a film like The Road Home, in that it strongly questions, not celebrates, the myth that lovers should have no pasts and no prior attachments (or no futures and no subsequent attachments, for that matter), and that love should be preserved at any and all costs.
While the sudden turns in the plot may invite derision rather than astonishment (but the plot makes perfect sense upon some reflection: the rebels are trying to avenge the death of their old leader by drawing the “general” and his troops into their lair, by using Mei to make the government troops, and Jin, think that they’re approaching the rebels surreptitiously), there is enormous subtlety in the way in which the film unfolds on a human level. In fact, almost needless complexity of the plot suggests that the film wants the audience to know that it does not care who wins the larger battle in question, between the government and the rebels, as opposed to the fates of the three main characters, since within it they are no more than “mere pawns on a chessboard”, or expendable lives, as Jin says. In effect, the film stresses that any social order, whether old or new, is in the end inimical to the desires of an individual person, since it does not and cannot promote the fulfilment of individuals over the overall benefit or maintenance of the order. This film becomes something quite diametrically opposite from that of Hero, which sings the heroism of passivity towards power in the name of a seemingly “utilitarian” end of ceasing conflicts, because it concentrates only on individual human beings and their search for happiness.
But if the film repudiates the belief that social order can bring to an individual happiness in the end, its repudiation, again, doesn’t lie in blaming a certain form of society. It repudiates the belief by making society and its order not the main factor as to why individual happiness can or can’t be achieved. Thus, the film becomes not a statement for or against a certain order of things, but tries to become something quite universal, dealing with the kind of conflicts that are quite beyond cultural, historical, etc., specificities. Consider again Mei’s fate of being unable to choose between her love for Jin and Leo; her inability, as stated, is not based on the conflict between personal desire and social duties, but is based on the conflict between different conceptions of what love is: Mei does not fall in love with Jin because she wants to escape her social duties, but they both fall in love with each other quite against their will, and it is not the social duties that prevent her from running away with Jin, but her conscience towards what she has done to Leo, which again was done quite against her will. Thus, no matter within what societal order such conflicts may appear, they cannot be resolved without difficulty.
Here a comparison with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to which Zhang’s film will inevitably be compared, may be instructive, because they contrast quite starkly. As highly admirable as the film is, I believe it is a shallower film than Zhang’s film. Like House of Flying Daggers, it is “mainly” about a heroine (1), Jen (Zhang Ziyi), who also can’t find happiness. But in Crouching Tiger, the cause of her unhappiness is precisely identified as the social order that can tolerate neither her desire to transcend her given social role, nor her love towards a young man, Lo (Chang Chen), of a different social station. Even though her “youthful, immature” love is contrasted negatively with the “mature” love between an older warrior couple, Shu-lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Mu-bai (Chow Yun-fat), the film nevertheless suggests that within the social order that Jen belongs to the only fate that awaits her is either that of becoming a Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), a villainess, or a loveless arranged marriage, because her true love will not find its fulfilment in the order. So her eventual choice is to kill herself.
But this act, supposed to be taken as some kind of “liberation” from worldly desires, is a rather puzzling one, since there is nothing that truly prevents her from being with Lo if she is willing to live outside the social order that she has put herself in opposition to, wittingly or unwittingly, because of her actions. If she kills herself because she thinks she can’t find fulfilment in the very society that she is rebelling against, then the act is more like a bitter defiance towards the society that’s not willing to accept her desires and happiness than is trying to be free from worldly entanglements, for she is already “free” (granted, in a limited sense) at the end. Because Jen’s final choice is based on something closer to anger (or pride, even) than reconciliation, her final suicidal leap feels sudden and forced in terms of the development of the story. And she remains a rather unappealing heroine throughout the film because she simply does not grow from her experience. In fact, one can make a case easily that, of all four main characters, she is the least appealing one.
In Crouching Tiger, therefore, the main reason why love between people cannot find fulfilment is the social order in which they find themselves. But this is a rather superficial way of accounting for why love usually doesn’t find fulfilment (and this betokens the limitation of Lee as an artist: that he often uses “society”, an abstract term, and its conventions, as the main opposition to the characters in his films). It is common that love without the impediments imposed by society doesn’t find fulfilment either: a person’s love for another person doesn’t always get returned, and a love sometimes simply doesn’t last and it just fades away over time. And one might even say that if love between two people survives in spite of a certain social order that impedes its fulfilment, then such love is already deeper than the kind of love that the social order does tolerate, since most people find love within the social order that they’re placed in.
Or consider the issue at the heart of House of Flying Daggers: can a person “genuinely” love two people at the same time? And, if so, can such a love be maintained without incurring jealousy among the two people, or without one of them falling out of love? Again, it is superficial to approach this in terms of whether a society should or shouldn’t find such conduct acceptable, or whether it is morally right or wrong for the characters to act the way they do (and one can take a side and argue such matters to death), for what’s at the heart of the tragedy is not the moral (in the sense of assigning “blame”) or social considerations, but that falling in (and out of) love, and all the strong emotions that come with it, simply can’t be mediated by one’s will, much less social conventions.
How does the way the film unfolds signify subtlety? The film originally begins as about a man who’s assigned to seduce a woman, for an apparent objective, actually falling in love with her. But we learn only very later in the film that she was assigned to do the very same thing to the man in question and, in addition, she also knew that the man she was assigned to seduce was also assigned to seduce her; in other words, Jin thinks he’s being assigned to seduce and follow Mei, in order to allow the government troops to approach the rebels surreptitiously, but in fact it is he who is being seduced within the plot set in motion by Leo, Mei and the rebels (from the very first time he is asked to see Mei-at the encouragement of Leo, no less) that’s designed to bring the government troops to the rebels out of their own will. The film in fact fully merits a repeat viewing (or more), for there are nuances in the plot, and especially the interactions between the characters, that are simply not detectable without the knowledge of the fact that there are layers of deception between the characters.
But, as stated earlier, the larger plot of who will win the battle between the government and the rebels is contrasted negatively with the bare human interactions between the three characters as having no real significance, for the particulars of the plot are in the end implausible, without being incoherent: it is not all that plausible that Leo, even in his undercover role, would arrest Mei only after a prolonged fight between them, nor is it very plausible that Jin’s true identity would be hidden to the additional troops (though reasons can be invented-such as that Leo wanted it so), nor is it believable that the rebels in undercover roles are kept from being aware of one another’s identities (though, again, it is possible).
On a human scale, the deceptions between the characters do matter greatly, since, as Jin falls in love with Mei, she in turn falls in love with him. And both of them know that there is a third person, known to each of them as a comrade and a lover, respectively, who is looking over their every move from behind. The interactions of the two lovers become something quite interesting, since we see that they are falling in love, but as their real objectives dictate (which we can realize fully only later, or see more clearly if the film is seen again) they know that they are not supposed to fall in love with each other but only seduce each other, so that they are trying to repel each other to keep themselves from falling in love as much as they have to seduce each other to accomplish their tasks.
Consider the sequence early in the film where Jin rescues Mei, who’s being attacked by a bunch of policemen/soldiers, by employing his archery skills; a marvellous sequence, in movie-heroic terms. But our emotions immediately get betrayed when we learn very shortly that Jin “deliberately” missed killing the policemen, and that the whole sequence itself was a charade. The whole film in fact progresses like this until the latter third, where one has to balance between the impulse to wholeheartedly engage one’s emotions in the fates of the characters and the impulse to question their real motives (the dominant mood in the film is not excitement, or even passion, but doubt). The reasons to question keep appearing: for example, “blind” Mei often “sees” that soldiers are approaching, quite before the revelation that her blindness is a ruse. And this balancing act gets more tiresome after the bamboo forest sequence when it gets revealed that Mei was assigned to do the same to Jin that we know Jin was assigned to do to Mei. And, on top of that, the love story that we’ve been seeing suddenly turns upside down when Leo is revealed as Mei’s true lover.
But the two most pivotal sequences in the film prior to the ending – the scene where Leo painfully learns that she has fallen in love with Jin after all, and the scene where Mei, now assigned to kill Jin, sets him free after being unable to bring herself to kill him – eventually affirm that what we seem to have seen all the way through, that of two people falling in love, in fact truly was the case, despite all their false identities, secret motives and double-crossing schemes which have all been laid bare to the viewers. Even if the world turns upside down, the only thing that runs its proper course, the film maintains, is the love (and hatred) between two people.
After making a rather simplistic pæan to nationalism, or a dubious interpretation of Taoist thinking, or both, with Hero, Zhang Yimou has made a heartbreaking love story (for all three characters, that is) with House of Flying Daggers, the kind that one would have an easier time dealing with superficially because what it says about the nature and costs of love is not especially comforting, despite its colourful visuals and melodramatic genre trappings.