Introduction: House of Flying Daggers / Shi mian mai fu
[Literal English translation of Mandarin Chinese title Shi mian mai fu = Attack or Ambush from Ten Directions]
China, Hong Kong, 2004
in Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles; Run time: 119 min.
MPAA RATED PG-13 for sequences of stylized martial arts violence, and some sexuality
Director: Zhang Yimou [Family name: Zhang; First name: Yimou]
AKA [USA style: First name + Family/Last name]: Yimou Zhang
b. 1951, Xi'an, Shaaxi, China
Film Director, Producer, Writer, Actor, Cinematographer, Theatrical Director

On Film Censorship

"The Chinese censorship system has been in practice for many years. I don't think there will be much change in society in the short run. This situation has been present for a long time and it is a reality in China. I work and live in this system. There has not been a significant change" (Zhang Yimou, qtd. in MacNab).

Some commentators have interpreted Zhang's recent films Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) "as allegories about contemporary China": for example, House of Flying Daggers is unsympathetic toward the T'ang Dynasty emperor, whom we "never see [in the film], but . . . learn . . . is incompetent," whose "soldiers are brutal" and whose "government is riddled with corruption. The film may be set in AD [CE] 859, but with its depiction of an imperial army ruthlessly tracking down a shadowy terrorist organization, it . . . has obvious contemporary relevance" (MacNab; emphasis added).  However, in a 2004 interview with Guardian (Manchester, UK) reporter Geoffrey MacNab, Zhang Yimou stated: "'The objective of any form of art is not political. I had no political intentions. I am not interested in politics'" (Zhang Yimou, qtd. in MacNab; emphasis added). But Zhang's statement seemed "a little disingenuous" to the Guardian interviewer, since Zhang Yimou "was part of the so-called Fifth Generation, a group of film-makers who helped win Chinese cinema an international reputation, but were constantly in trouble with the [People's Republic of China, or PRC] censors. Less than a decade ago, the Beijing authorities halted production on [Zhang's] 1994 gangster picture, Shanghai Triad, and briefly banned the film-maker from attending foreign film festivals" (MacNab; emphasis added).

T'ang Dynasty AD/CE 618 - 907: House of Flying Daggers is set in AD/CE 859 (as stated above), near the end of China's T'ang Dynasty. The T'ang Dynasty enjoyed its "golden age" AD/CE 710-755, but corruption was, as  always ,commonplace and Chinese peasants, as always, suffered. "A sequence of peasant uprisings beginning in [CE] 860 A.D. led to the demise of the T'ang Dynasty" ("T'ang Dynasty").

On PRC's [People's Republic of China's] "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers:  According to Yingjin Zhang, "The filmmakers who brought Chinese cinema to international attention are those who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982, better known as the Fifth Generation, whose members include Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou" (emphasis added). Fifth Generation filmmakers "began by challenging the myths of Communist revolution" and "intentionally blur[red] the distinction between heroes and villains" (Zhang, "A Centennial Review"). Their films featured "minimal plot, scanty dialogue and diegetic music, natural lighting, and out-of-proportion frame composition, thereby presenting the visuals as the principal means of decoding meaning and narrative. The Fifth Generation was faulted for their obsession with modernist aesthetics at the expense of the box-office. But since [Zhang Yimou's] Red Sorghum (1988) won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, many young directors have changed their styles to meet the international demand for ethnic cultural elements, glossy visuals, and polished narrative" (Zhang, "A Centennial Review").

MacNab speculates that Zhang's disavowal of any political intent in his films "is an indication either of the tightrope he has to walk or of his contradictory personality," because moments later, in the same 2004 interview, Zhang stated "that his great ambition remains to make a series of movies set during the Cultural Revolution. . . . [which] was a defining moment in his life. Close members of his family were shamed and humiliated for opposing the Communist government" (MacNab; emphasis added).

"The Cultural Revolution was a very special period of Chinese history, unique in the world," Zhang says. "It was part of my youth. It happened between when I was 16 and when I was 26. During those 10 years, I witnessed so many terrible and tragic things. For many years, I have wanted to make movies about that period - to discuss the suffering and to talk about fate and human relationships in a world which people couldn't control and which was very hostile. I would like to make not just one but many movies, both autobiographical and drawing on other people's stories." In today's climate, he [Zhang Yimou] acknowledges, such a project is impossible. "I'll just have to wait." (Zhang Yimou, qtd. in MacNab)

On PRC's [People's Republic of China's]  Cultural Revolution: "1966-1976: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Mao [Zedong] encouraged ‘permanent revolution’ leading to countrywide chaos and attacks by young Red Guards on teachers and professionals. The Cultural Revolution ends with Death of Mao and the subsequent arrest of the Gang of Four" (Chow, "Timeline").

On China's "Sixth Generation" and filmmaking in today's PRC [People's Republic of China], Zhang Yimou has stated:

". . . practical considerations . . . . cannot be resisted: the need for money, the dilemma caused by censorship, and the awards at international film festivals . . ."  (qtd. in Chow, "Week 8 Verité China.")

MLA Style Works Cited bibliographical entry:

House of Flying Daggers [Chinese/Mandarin: Shi mian mai fu].  Dir. Zhang Yimou. Perf. Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang. Beijing New Picture Film Co., China Film Co-Production Corp., EDKO Film, Eliot Group Ent., Zhang Yimou Studio, 2004. Elite Group Ent.-Sony Pictures Classics, 2005. DVD.

Filmography Information

House of Flying Daggers. Mandarin: Shi mian mai fu  International Release date: 2004
Zhang Yimou  - AKA [USA style]: Yimou Zhang
Producers: Zhang Weiping, William (Bill) Kong, Zhang Yimou
[USA style]: Weiping Zhang, William (Bill) Kong, Yimou Zhang
Screenplay Writers: Li Feng, Zhang Yimou, Wang Bin
 AKA [USA style]: Feng Li, Yimou Zhang, Bin Wang
Cinematographer/Director of Photography: Zhao Xiaoding
      AKA [USA style]: Xiaoding Zhao

Film Editor: Cheng Long
- AKA [USA style]: Long Cheng
Costume Design: Emi Wada
Production Design: Huo Tingxiao
- AKA [USA style]: Tingxiao Huo
Action Choreographer [Martial Arts sequences]: Ching Sui-Tung - AKA: Tony Ching Sui-Tung
Original Music: Shigeru Umebayashi
Production Companies: Beijing New Picture Film Co., China Film Co-Production Corp., EDKO Films, Elite Group Enterprises, Zhang Yimou Studio.
DVD: Elite Group Enterprises-Sony Pictures Classics, 2005.

Main Characters/Performers
Xiao Mei
[first appearing as new star dancer in lavish Peony Pavilion brothel, Mei is believed to be the blind
        daughter of a rebel group's recently assassinated leader]
played by
Zhang Ziyi [AKA: Ziyi Zhang]
Jin [police captain in the ruling Tang emperor's service, enlisted by his superior Leo to play the role of double agent
        by helping Mei escape and getting her to lead him - and government troups - to the rebel stronghold]
played by Takeshi Kaneshiro
[introduced as a high ranking policeman in the Tang emperor's service, Leo turns out to a mole planted years
        earlier by the rebels working to overthrow the corrupt ruling Tang government]
played by
Andy Lau

For more complete filmographical information, see these Internet Movie Database sources:

"Shi mian mai fu (2004)." [House of Flying Daggers.] The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

"Full Cast and Crew for Shi mian mai fu (2004)." [House of Flying Daggers.] The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Brief Film Synopsis
see also House of Flying Daggers official web site:

From "House of Flying Daggers: Plot Synopsis":

Chinese director Zhang Yimou fuses a martial arts action-drama with a tragic romance in this elegant period piece. In the year 859 A.D., as the Tang dynasty is beset by rebellion, Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) are a pair of lawmen who have been given the task of ferreting out the leaders of a revolutionary faction known as the Flying Daggers. Working on a tip that members of the group are working out of a brothel called the Peony Pavilion, Jin arrives there in disguise and is introduced to a beautiful blind dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi). After watching Mei's performance following several drinks, Jin drunkenly attempts to have his way with her, and Leo is forced to intervene. After gaining Mei's trust in a game of skill, Leo arrests her and informs her that she'll be tortured if she doesn't tell all she knows about the Flying Daggers. Jin responds by helping Mei break out of prison, but he has an ulterior motive -- by following her, Leo and Jin are certain she'll lead them to the Flying Daggers. However, as he helps the blind girl find her way back home, Jin finds himself falling in love with Mei, and isn't certain if he's willing to betray her again.

On House of Flying Daggers' many Plot Twists & possible Interpretations,  I recommend you read:

Lee, Hwanhee. "House of Flying Daggers: A Reappraisal."  Senses of Cinema [Issue 35] Apr-Jun 2005. Web. 4 May 2010.  <>.

Titles, Genres, Settings, Themes

TITLE/S: BBC-Norfolk film critic Jamie Russell explains that a "literal English translation of the Mandarin title" Shi Mian Mai Fu is '"Ambushed from Ten Directions'" (emphasis added), which she considers a

perfect synopsis of Zhang Yimou's unique combination of vigorous martial arts action. The trio's [i.e. Jin, Mei, and Leo's] trek across the ravaged beauty of Tang Dynasty China (actually shot in the Ukraine, bizarrely) sets the scene for some truly incredible action scenes as CGI daggers cut through the air at improbable speeds, cavalry charge through fields of flowers and a bamboo forest erupts into a gloriously intricate vertical battle. (Russell)

GENRES: Director Zhang Yimou has called his film "'a love story wrapped inside an action film'" (qtd. in McNab; emphasis added). In China, Shi mian mai fu [House of Flying Daggers] is classified in the film genre of "wuxia (swordplay and chivalry)" (Russell; emphasis added).  Russell also calls House of Flying Daggers "an action film, period romp, melodrama, love story, tragedy, a tale of revenge, and a comedy (of sorts)." The Internet Movie Database web page "Shi mian mai fu (2004)" lists action, adventure, drama, fantasy, romance (and more) as the genres of House of Flying Daggers.

Roger Ebert derides the "brutal and ugly" imagery of many recent [i.e. U.S.] "high-tech action pictures," and hopes this film genre "may yet be redeemed by the elegance of martial arts pictures from the East," such as Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, which "combin[e] excitement, romance and astonishing physical beauty."  House of the Flying Daggers' action scenes do have their casualties--in fact, as Geoffrey McNab observes, ". . . the body count in Flying Daggers is enormous. Whether it's Jin shooting off arrows at breakneck pace or standing back to back with Mei and fighting off vast hordes of imperial soldiers, or the astonishing fight sequence in the bamboo forest, the set-pieces are as violent as they are poetic." But Roger Ebert, like other U.S. film critics, emphasizes not the number of deaths but "the pleasure of elegant ingenuity" and "improbable delight, as when four arrows from one bow strike four targets simultaneously. The impossible is cheerfully welcomed here" (Ebert). Ebert pronounces "the plot, the characters, the intrigue" of  House of Flying Daggers "splendid," but he recommends that viewers focus on the film's "visuals": for example, "interiors of ornate elaborate richness, costumes of bizarre beauty, landscapes of mountain ranges and meadows, fields of snow, banks of autumn leaves and a bamboo grove that functions like a kinetic art installation."

Martial Arts Action Scenes:  McNab reports that "Zhang eschews the 'chop chop fighting' that most associate with martial arts movies in favour of lush romanticism"  [emphasis added].  Ebert is impressed that action scenes set in beautiful places "are not broken down into jagged short cuts and incomprehensible foreground action.  Zhang stands back and lets his camera regard the whole composition . . . [in the wise] belief that to appreciate choreography you must be able to see the entire body in motion" [emphasis added].  Ebert singles out two scenes for special praise: the "Echo Game" and the "battle in a tall bamboo grove" [emphasis added]. The Echo Game scene--which "takes place inside the Peony Pavillion, a luxurious brothel that flourishes in the dying days of the Tang Dynasty, 859 A.D."--centers "blind" Mei's unforgettable "ballet of movement and percussion" (Ebert).  The bamboo grove battle "is magnificent": "Warriors attack from above, hurling sharpened bamboo shafts that surround the lovers [Jin and Mei], and then swooping down on tall, supple bamboo trees to attack at close range.  The sounds of the whooshing bamboo spears and the click of dueling swords and sticks have a musical effect . . ." (Ebert).  Ebert praises director Zhang Yimou for his "visually stunning films" and concludes that House of Flying Daggers "is so good to look at and listen to that, as with some operas, the story is almost beside the point, serving primarily to get us from one spectacular scene to another."

SETTING as Mirror of CHARACTERRussell insightfully observes that "Zhang Yimou uses the landscape as a mirror of his character's predicaments" and feelings:  for example, ". . . a dense forest captures the characters' confusion; a snow storm suggests [characters'] ruthless, icy intentions. Martial arts have rarely been filmed with so much artistry" (emphasis added).

THEME/S:  In House of Flying Daggers' the "epic love triangle" among the characters Jin, Mei, and Leo,  "duty and passion" conflict and "become locked in moral combat" (Russell; emphasis added).  "While Hero [Zhang Yimou's previous 2002 wuxia film] asked its characters to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, House [of Flying Daggers] focuses on (an overtly) melodramatic love triangle in which the three leads put love before loyalty" (Russell; emphasis added). To Jamie Russell, the plot seems clichéd and the characters shallow, but says "it hardly matters when every frame of this operatic movie is inflamed with such breathless sensuality" (Russell). However, Hwanhee Lee contests interpretations that House of Flying Daggers is a "large-scaled" epic primarily satisfying as "a seductive spectacle, [and] . . . doesn't attempt anything resembling significance." Instead, Lee finds House of Flying Daggers "uncharacteristically intimate," its "characters and their predicaments" "moving," and judges the film  "a good deal deeper than other recent, ambitious attempts to make a more 'substantial' martial arts film."  For Lee, "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" (emphasis added). ". . . 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 [the film] says about the nature and costs of love is not especially comforting, despite its colourful visuals and melodramatic genre trappings" (Lee; emphasis added).

Works Cited & Recommended Sources

Chow, Eileen. "Timeline." Screening Modern China: Chinese Film and Culture. [Course web.] Chinese Literature 130, Fall 2005, Harvard U. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Chow, Eileen. "Week 5 After the Revolution: Mapping China's Borderlands." [Week 5 Handouts: Lecture Outline.] Screening Modern China: Chinese Film and Culture. [Course web.] Chinese Literature 130, Fall 2005, Harvard U. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Chow, Eileen. "Week 8 Verité China." [Week 8 Handouts: Lecture Outline.] Screening Modern China: Chinese Film and Culture. [Course web.] Chinese Literature 130, Fall 2005, Harvard U. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Ebert, Roger. Rev. of House of Flying Daggers (PG-13). Chicago Sun-Times,17 Dec. 2004: n.pag., 2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

"External Reviews for Shi mian mai fu (2004)." [House of Flying Daggers.] Directory. The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Farquhar, Mary. "Zhang Yimou." May 2002.  Senses of Cinema: Great Directors, A Critical Database. Web. 20 May 2009  <>. 

"Full Cast and Crew for Shi mian mai fu (2004)." [House of Flying Daggers.] The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

House of Flying Daggers  [Chinese/Mandarin: Shi mian mai fu].  Dir. Zhang Yimou. Perf. Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang. Beijing New Picture Film Co., China Film Co-Production Corp., EDKO Film, Eliot Group Ent., Zhang Yimou Studio, 2004. Elite Group Ent.-Sony Pictures Classics, 2005. DVD.

"House of Flying Daggers: Plot Synopsis." allmovie. Rovi Corp., 2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Lee, Hwanhee. "House of Flying Daggers: A Reappraisal."  Senses of Cinema [Issue 35] Apr-Jun 2005. Web. 4 May 2010.  <>.

MacNab, Geoffrey. "'I'm Not Interested in Politics.'" The Guardian 17 Dec. 2004: n.pag. Guardian News and Media Ltd., 2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

"Parents Guide for Shi mian mai fu (2004)." [House of Flying Daggers.] The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Russell, Jamie. Rev. of House of Flying Daggers (Shi Mian Mai Fu) (2004). 2004. BBC [British Broadcasting Company] Norfolk, U.K., 2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <

"Shi mian mai fu (2004)." [House of Flying Daggers.] The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

"T'ang Dynasty." "Dynasties of Classical Imperial China." EMuseum @ Minnesota State U-Mankato. 18 Feb. 2010. Minnesota State U-Mankato, 2010. Web. <>.

"Yimou Zhang." The Internet Movie Database.,1990-2010. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

Zhang, Yingjin. "A Centennial Review of Chinese Cinema." 15 May 2008. Chinese Cinema Web-Based Learning Center, U of California-San Diego. Web. 4 May 2010. <>.

YouTube offerings on House of Flying Daggers:

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