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Steamy times come to Chinese films
Updated: 2004-11-29 10:06

In "House of Flying Daggers," a new mainland Chinese film by Zhang Yimou, sex, not politics, is the focus.

Early in Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers," the hero, Jin unsheathes a sword to slice the buttons off a showgirl's robe. This scandalizes onlookers despite the setting - a brothel.

Later, the drunken Jin pulls the dancer to the ground, flips her over and tears her dress.

The scene is tame by Western standards; not much is revealed beyond shoulders and prettily disheveled hair. Still, Jin's display of lust is an expression of a significant, if subtle change that is starting to brew in Chinese film: "Daggers," which is being released in New York on Dec. 3 by Sony Pictures Classics, may be the first large-scale mainland Chinese movie to assert a frank, liberated approach to sex.

Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, who pretends to be blind, but is skilled at both dancing and Kungfu. [file photo]
Movies from Chinese directors working outside mainland China - Taiwan's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," for example, or any of Wong Kar Wai's sexy tone poems from Hong Kong like "Days of Being Wild" - tend to depict sexuality in a playful light.

Mainland movies, on the other hand, often weigh it down, making it into a historical or political statement. Although fighting forms a backdrop for "Daggers," the political story line is not where the passion is.

Martial arts pyrotechnics set among the plains and forests of a make-believe Tang-era battlefield are simply a familiar framework that a prominent Chinese director is using to depict one of the China's most startling social changes: an ongoing sexual revolution.

The "Daggers" plot revolves around the lovely rebel Mei (Zhang Ziyi) and her on-again, off-again affair with Jin, a government spy. The plot twists don't detract from what the director himself called the film's unapologetic hotness: the opening sequence is followed by intense kissing, an impassioned love triangle, a band of women rebel warriors, subtly fetishistic behavior and an attempted rape (although it's one with all clothes on). Then come the themes that are modern for China, including a dating cat-and-mouse game in which a woman chases her playboy lover and then pushes him away. Call it "Sex and the Bamboo Forest."

In a telephone interview from Beijing, Mr. Zhang said he conceived "Daggers" in the late 1990's as a companion to "Hero," his epic about the birth of the first Chinese empire.

The two movies share the theme of sacrifice. In "Hero," Mr. Zhang said, the individual sacrifices everything for an overriding political goal. In "Daggers," the characters give up everything for romantic love.

"For thousands of years, there's been a tradition of teaching us in China to think in terms of the collective experience, so we are rarely able to act in accordance with personal desires or emotions," he said. "Now young people, especially under Western influences, have become much more interested in themselves and their own values."

Wendy Larson, professor of East Asian languages and literatures at the University of Oregon, said: "Sexuality isn't playful in Chinese movies. It's an expression of revolutionary passion, or it's linked to loyalty to your tradition or your martial arts group."

Chris Berry a professor of film and television studies at the University of London who specializes in Chinese film, explained: "The old ethic is towards production. All energy was to be spent with building the country up and not wasted on having sex. Now the idea is that you're a consumer. You have only so much time on this planet and you'd better enjoy every minute of it."

China is a jiggling mass of change that includes a the sexual revolution. A Chinese survey sited recently by The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that only about 30 percent of Chinese men and women are virgins when they marry, down from 84 percent in the late 1980's.

Marital infidelity is on the rise; Beijing has about 2,000 sex shops, which the newspaper said was four times the number of McDonald's in the whole country. And "Sex and the City" is a Chinese runaway best seller on DVD.

"It's connected to young people in the city having enough money to live alone," Dr. Berry said. "It's connected to the lack of any kind of efficient prohibition around sex.

If you go back before the 20th century, there wasn't sexual conservatism in China. It's to do with the West, and with missionaries."

Now it's the West, with its consumerism and the ever-widening influence of Hollywood, that is helping make sex a fit subject for the arts.

"Daggers" earned $20 million domestically, making it the second highest grossing film ever in China. ("Hero," at $29 million, was No. 1.)

"The film attracted a groundbreaking Chinese audience," said Guo-Juin Hong, a professor of Chinese literature and film at Duke University.

In contrast, Dr. Hong pointed out, Mr. Zhang's earlier films "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," were banned at the time they were made.

Mr. Zhang agrees that "Daggers" generates more heat than his past films. " 'Ju Dou,' comes close, but 'Daggers' goes even farther," he said. Thirty years ago you could not imagine seeing a film like this, especially not a martial arts film."

"The character of Mei is modern and unconventional," he said, adding, that the actress who plays her "is liberated, too." Ms. Zhang, a 25-year-old superstar, travels the world and is seen on the covers of international magazines.

In "Ju Dou," from 1990, the virginal bride of an abusive factory owner discovers that his nephew has been watching her undress, and hastens to block his peephole. Later, the two begin an affair, but its illegitimacy parries any feeling of liberation.

In "Daggers," Jin spies on the bathing Mei (A virgin? Who knows?). Mei realizes he is there, and lets him know she knows. And she lets him continue watching, a lead-up to steamy smooching session that made at least one knowledgeable viewer say he wanted to "leave the theater to give them some privacy."

That viewer was Grady Hendrix, a co-founder of Subway Cinema, a group in New York that fosters and exhibits Asian films. Something else surprised Mr. Hendrix.

"Things get downright fetishy when Mei's captors take her to the dungeon and show her the torture device they're going to use," he said. He also mentioned the scene in which the two male costars are tied up in a "Japanese hemp-and-rope bondage kind of way," adding with a laugh, "It should be called 'House of the Flying Fetish.' " And to top it off, Mei is blind.

"China may be one of the only countries that can legitimately balance that line between characters who want to tear each other's clothes off or to do nothing but talk and have it be very sexual," Mr. Hendrix said, mentioning similarities with the 1950's in America.

Summing up this critical juncture in mainland Chinese onscreen mores, he said: "They can walk the line between passion and morality. It comes out of a real place in terms of culture and values. It feels Chinese."

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