07 August, 2021

Women in Asian Cinema

Role and treatment of women in House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Mother (2009) 

This research essay will critically discuss the role and treatment of women in national cinema, namely Zhang Yimou’s, 2004, House of Flying Daggers and Bong Joon-ho’s, 2009, Mother. I will attempt to identify, define and research the characterisation and portrayal of women within contrasting settings and depictions, as well as provide general commentary on the patriarchy and feminism. With the aid of literary resources, I aim to showcase the influence and effectiveness of qualities and attributes within a character brief that consequently provokes discussions about authentic or fair representation. Throughout the essay, I will be highlighting problematic traits and unjust circumstances enforced upon Xiaomei in House of Flying Daggers, whilst pointing out the differences, persuading readers of the power that strong female protagonists hold, generated in the portrayal of Mother in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, consequently, commenting on the male gaze and the oppression of women. 


The aim of this essay is to dismantle misogynistic ideologies and to encourage writers and film directors, to create deeper, broader, and a greater variety of roles for women in cinema, as well as expanding the range and diversity of women represented on-screen to accurately represent real-life and real people; to stray away from the over-done, obvious, cliché characterisation of females that often oppresses them, offends their power and demeans their capabilities.  

Firstly, focusing on House of Flying Daggers’ protagonist Xiaomei, although characterised as strong, capable, and loyal, is thrown right into a male-dominated setting with no granted permission to her own anatomy. Introduced in the brothel scene, she is immediately subject to harassment as Jin lunges at her, ripping her clothes. Barely 10 minutes into the film and it is already evident that there is going to be no justice served as authorities march in and victim-blame Xiaomei for being assaulted. Additionally, from the get-go, it is indisputable that Xiaomei’s appearance will assist in the development and direction of the plot, however only restricted through a male gaze that objectifies her, stripping her of her agency. Time and again Xiaomei is depicted as a damsel in distress, a helpless girl that needs the protection of men, despite all supporting characters haven seen her dagger-work and are aware of her (presumed) status and skill. This ongoing rinse and repeat agenda is regulated by a constant need to depict Xiaomei as an object of desire, and the male characters, namely Jin and Leo, as the embodiment of strength and masculinity, patronizes and belittles any sense of individualism or unique characteristics Xiaomei inhibits.


In fact, this slow-burn-type of plot progression, where the oppression imposed upon Xiaomei increases, eventually completely disconnects from the original grounds of motive - finding the new leader of the House of Flying Daggers, as by the end of the film there is no resolution to the original objective, which was to kill the new leader. Rather, it amounts to a disappointing love triangle affair which, too, results in the worst outcome for Xiaomei as she is killed, with no consequences for any of the male characters. Leo tries to force himself upon Xiaomei, but she’s the one that gets killed because she refused his advances. Jin requires saving, but Xiaomei is tricked to her death in the name of sacrifice and true love. 


Attempts to form commentary, contrary to this argument based on having given Xiaomei permission ‘despite’ her gender in the film adaptation House of Flying Daggers set in the Tang Dynasty, as compared to her much more oppressed characterization in the original poem by Li Yannian which was set in the Han Dynasty (Ya-Chen, 2005) is an unnoteworthy discourse. To ‘offer’ women “greater freedom” (Ya-Chen, 2005) to do things such as “socialize with men in public” (Ya-Chen, 2005) and not have “strict rules for women’s virginity and chastity” (Ya-Chen, 2005) is nothing to commend. Usually, adaptations or remakes come into existence to re-do plots with a contemporary audience in mind, however, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers rather uses this as an excuse to unnecessarily sexualize and close in on appearance and a love-story based plot, further accentuating restrictions often enforced upon womens’ autonomy and the representation of females through a male perspective. 


This discussion is further supported by film critics such as McGuire’s (2019) dissection of Yimou’s filmmaking; that although Yimou is undoubtedly a masterful filmmaker, it is undeniable that his films position women as the “lower species” (McGuire, 2019). It is also noted that Yimou values actresses that access the ‘male gaze’ as means to advantage their character, however then only of benefit to the male audience as the “determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure that is styled accordingly” (McGuire, 2019) and “the gaze is built upon culturally defined notions of sexual difference” (McGuire, 2019). 


Overall, attempts to depict Xiaomei within the femme fatale troupe ends up rather being a ‘manic-pixie-dream girl’ persona: a woman who is skilled, beautiful, and confident, only to then rid her of her strength, position her purely on the basis of her sexuality and in opposition to men who use her to their advantage and then killing her off, results in a frustrating viewing of this film. It neither accurately represents real-life women or the extent of their capabilities, nor conveys a consistent plot from which a moral can be elicited. It instead almost seems to fulfil a twisted fantasy and desire to keep women oppressed, especially if they are strong.

Contrastingly, the characterization of the female protagonist in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother offers a stark variation in traits, attributes, and societal positioning; exhibiting the expansive variety and diverse representation women in film have to offer. Rather than the overdone sexual assault victim, girl-next-door, or damsel in distress character cage, Mother depicts the realities of living in poverty, of living with mental illness, and explores the nature of being a parent. Furthermore, this is done through the artistry of an unconventional actress, an old female, who captivates the audience and steals the stage with a ground-breaking performance. 


From the get-go, the protagonist referred to as solely ‘mother’ throughout the entire film is independent, self-reliant, and has clearly been in charge of the finances and parental care in the Yoon household. The lack of a male or father figure is never discussed, nor even hinted at, further emphasizing the capacity and capabilities of the mother. 


Mother is autonomous, making ends meet by selling herbal medication and practising acupuncture, whilst taking care of household chores and a mentally ill adult child, defying the norms of traditional households or an assumed family dynamic with the father as the breadwinner. It is also hinted at, in scenes, that mother herself deals with mental health issues as Yoon Do-Joon recalls her attempts to kill him and then herself, adding to the characteristic of mother as strong and resilient. Having survived what was a suicide attempt and having had continued from that point with a goal of taking care of her child, mother embodies the ultimate survivor as she is surviving for two (Ratner, 2010), emphasizing the true nature and virtue of motherhood, to not even acknowledge her own pain in order to be capable of helping her child. 


Furthermore, setting the mother up in the contemporary society where hegemonies are built on the de-sexualisation of elderly women, as well as culturally in a Korean context which excludes the single mother, and possibly a widow from any societally acceptable sexual activity (Kim, 2016), allows for the plot to be directed by her actions and behaviours, using all meagre advantages; the perceived innocuousness and near-invisibility of an elderly woman (Ratner, 2010), for the audience to base their judgment of her personality, rather than her looks or ability to seduce someone. Mother is portrayed as a human rather than as an excuse to portray an unrealistic or idealized woman, as far too often to be a woman in cinema, is to be sexualized or made to use sexuality for personal gains.


Although unfortunate that contemporary society devalues elderly women, as they no longer meet the idealized beauty standards; this paradoxically rids them of the constraints, policing, and sexualisation that had been enforced upon them previously, allowing for their lives to be led and for relationships to be made, on a basis other than their gender. 


In this manner, Bong Joon-ho’s, Mother, works to finally give centre stage to an age range barely depicted or spoken for in the media. Flipping the inevitable degradation within social hierarchies or the diminishing importance that often results as a woman ages, on its head, Bong Joon-ho uses this to accentuate the mother’s personality, psyche, and identity, allowing for a greater focus on her actions, representing a female life devoid of the male gaze or the incentive of assault and discrimination based on gender, thus better showcasing the effects of economic oppression, mental health issues, corruption and the extent of female power.


Mother takes traits that younger women are often ridiculed for, such as being ‘overly emotional’, ‘dramatic’ or ‘caring too much’, and applies it to a situation, utilizing stylistic devices such as plot twists and flashbacks, to rephrase and review those emotions and build a barely-seen-before character type: “a mother [that] will go to any length to save or avenge her child” (Ji-yoon An, 2019), where “the underlying foundation of this hypothesis lies in the notion of excessive maternal love, a trait that is taken to be present in all Korean mothers” (Ji-yoon An, 2019), a sort of love that transcends laws and morals.

Acting almost as a cautionary tale for audiences, to never underestimate a woman, to never mock her emotions, and to never forget the power she holds and isn’t afraid to use when it comes to what she cares about; a tale where “the mother starts off as a victim but gradually transforms into a darker character with the potential to do harm” (Ji-yoon An, 2019).


Such argument is also backed up by theorists who have studied the responses from audiences upon watching such films, and their interests for what Korean society has labelled ‘mother thriller’ films (Ji-yoon An, 2019) in which themes of oppressed women who are pushed to their limits in a patriarchal society, forgo their morals in order to save their child or to fight against an often fraudulent and unjust system, with violent and murderous measures. For example, Ji-Yoon An’s research explains how the male-dominated society has made women “quick, calculating and unethical”, in order to practice their “female agency” (2019). 


Congruent to this statement, Mother almost stands as a feminist text, where instead of portraying an elderly woman as frail or needing protection, it applies that very reasoning and makes Mother scary. No one is ever suspecting such a demographic of committing a horrendous murder, allowing mother to fly under the radar and never be suspected of the crime; highlighted in the final scene of the film where the mother’s “silhouette joins a crowd of other dancing women, [and] it becomes impossible to distinguish our protagonist, leaving viewers with the frightening speculation that a similarly dark story might exist behind all Korean mothers who dance to forget such memories” (Ji-yoon An, 2019), simultaneously deceiving everyone. It gives way to the psychotic nature that has emerged as a result of frustration, anger, and constant injustice, alerting audiences that women are to be feared and warning them of the effects of pushing women too far, endorsing fear into viewers and making them realize that the very importance they have stripped elderly women of, will be their downfall; a theory emphasized in “the final scene of Mother insinuating all Korean mothers to harbour not only an ability to transform into a subversive character but even a similarly harrowing and hidden past” (Ji-yoon An, 2019).


Especially within the context, in which this film was made, the moral of the story is emphasized far more when reached to audiences it had targeted. The role and importance of family and motherhood in Korean culture are far more central and of significance, “the fact that the first female to be imaged on a Korean banknote was a woman known as ‘the great Korean mother’ speaks of the national pride embedded in the image of Korean motherhood.” (Ji-yoon An, 2019). Consequently, the “role of the mother is romanticized to exemplify the familiar image of the ‘wise mother good wife’ with narratives often focusing on a mother’s sacrifice” (Ji-yoon An, 2019) and the majority of Korean family films depicting the role of a mother through rose-coloured lenses with a focus on the purity of motherhood which is challenged tremendously with Mother, which instead explores “the continuing issue of ‘extreme motherhood’ in today’s society” (Ji-yoon An, 2019).


Discussing the role and treatment of women in national cinema between Zhang Yimou’s, 2004, House of Flying Daggers and Bong Joon-ho’s, 2009, Mother and comparing depictions and positioning of protagonists within the two texts, the difference in agencies, scope, and ability is undeniably in the favour of mother, so much so that even film critics commented on the stark differences in the characterization of female characters as “thrillers of the past had worked to reinforce masculine solidarity, representatively between a male killer and a male chaser. Women, as the weaker sex, were usually collateral damage in the process of depicting masculine problems with governmental authority” (Ji-yoon An, 2019), and so this newly formed and popularised “image of strong female characters in mother thrillers can be argued as progress in the depiction of women in cinema, particularly within the genre of thrillers” (Ji-yoon An, 2019).


Although the setting of both films is dominated by male presence, whether that might be in an authoritative manner or just by the sheer unequal ratio of men to women, the characteristics of Xiaomi even though the feminist reading of the femme fatale, discusses the stories of this period as cautionary tales, designed to warn male readers of female sexuality’s catastrophic effects on patriarchy (Kourelou, 2010), obviously positioning the male audience as its target and alerting them of the consequences of giving women too much freedom. Meanwhile, Bong, a Korean male director, saw Mother as a chance to push an agenda: to destroy the myth of maternal instinct, exhibiting and recognizing that despite the association with care and comfort, motherhood itself is rarely peaceful, setting up a situation that begs mother to break boundaries (Kim, 2016) and illustrates a truer deposition of female hardship and the difficulties of motherhood. 


Mother is simply a character treated with more respect and attention. Written with a real person in mind, a conclusion that will engage with audiences as well as start a wider conversation about, and inclusive of demographics that have previously been shoved under the rug, the film works to psychologically question our society, its treatment of elderly women, as well as disabilities in the national and cultural context of Korea as well as the overall patriarchy. However, Xiaomei on the other hand is made to play into all the traps laid out for her by male authorities, the patriarchy, and general discrimination against her gender. Her personality is underdeveloped, written only to the extent of serving the male gaze and offering audiences an attractively enveloped cautionary tale about women’s sexuality and independence, encouraging the shutting down or disapproval of female independence and autonomy.


Overall, to conclude, it can be finalised that films, namely Zhang Yimou’s, 2004, House of Flying Daggers and Bong Joon-ho’s, 2009, Mother, showcase the role and treatment of women upon the basis of traits, personality and attributes made available to the character. Additionally, the positioning within a certain context or amongst other characters can highly impact the role, depiction, and treatment of said character, as located in the focus films where although both settings are heavily male-oriented and male-led with overt patriarchal influences, the characteristics, features, and potentials admitted to the female lead directs the moral; as Xiaomei is left helpless and presents the possible liberation of women if they practice their independence or sexuality, sitting as a cautionary tale for men and patriarchy, and mother is allowed to explore the power of maternal instinct as well as dismantle ideologies about age, agency, and capabilities.


Chen, Ya-Chen. (2005). There Is A Beauty in the Door(way) of Flying Daggers. Intellect. Asian Cinema, 15:2, pp 277-291. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/ac.16.2.277_1

Ji-yoon An. (2019). The Korean mother in contemporary thriller films: a Monster or just modern?, Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, 11:2, pp154-169, DOI: 10.1080/17564905.2019.1661655 

Kim, Ann Meejung. (2016). Alienating the Maternal Instinct in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, International Journal of Literature and Arts. 4:5, pp 61-67. DOI: 10.11648/j.ijla.2016040

Kourelou O. (2010) ‘Put the Blame on…Mei’: Zhang Ziyi and the Politics of Global Stardom. In: Hanson H., O’Rawe C. (eds) The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230282018_9

McGuire, P. (2019). Unveiling Identities: A Cultural Study of the Portrayal of Leading Women in Zhang Yimou Films. The University of Southern Mississippi, Graduate School, pp. 1-9, pp. 48-57. https://aquila.usm.edu/dissertations/1736/

Ratner, Megan. (2010). Film Comment ‘Mother’. Film Society of Lincoln Center, 46:2, pp 71.



House of Flying Daggers (film). Directed by Zhang Yimou. Edko Films. 2004. 

Mother (film). Directed by Bong Joon-ho. CJ Entertainment. 2009.

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