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Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
By Roderick Heath
Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.
The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.
The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.
Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.
Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.
This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.
Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.
The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.
Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.
Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.
At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.
Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.
At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.
Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.
Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.
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Director: Mu Fei
By Roderick Heath
When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Yimou Zhang or Kaige Chen probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.
The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.
The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.
When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.
Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.
Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.
Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.
Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.
The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)
Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.
Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.
The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.
The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.
The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.
Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Robert Clouse
By Roderick Heath
Enter the Dragon provokes one of those questions that can never be answered: what kind of career might Bruce Lee have had if he had lived? Lee died during the post-production of this film, on the cusp of enormous stardom. His image and mythology still reverberate, like those of James Dean, another movie star to die young with a small body of work, but just enough to achieve iconic status. The film and the question came inevitably back to mind after the death of Lee’s Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly a few weeks ago. Kelly, a martial arts champion and the first black film star with such a background, displayed charisma and cool in Enter the Dragon and earned himself a decade-long movie career, albeit in mostly forgettable vehicles. Whether Lee himself could have become a true global film star, and stayed one through the ’70s and into the ’80s to counter the pumped-up übermensch dominant in that time, is a fascinating proposition.
Lee is perhaps the most famous Asian movie actor for international audiences. The son of a Hong Kong opera star, Lee moved to the United States in his teens, where he studied at university and became an actor and martial arts teacher. He evolved into a fascinatingly multifaceted figure, with interests in philosophy and poetry as well as the more physical disciplines that gained him fame. He shattered stereotypes of Asian men in the popular mindset of the West, even if he inadvertently created another.
Enter the Dragon served the function for which it was intended—an icon-forging showcase for Lee’s skills and screen presence. In the process, it became a classic of the movie-going underworld, a genuine, top-shelf cult film—the kind of movie that had its sold-out screenings in fleapit cinemas in shady city districts, and a reason home video was invented, its VHS box swiftly becoming tattered by innumerable rentals. It’s the most successful movie of its type ever made, parlaying a budget of $850,000 into an eventual gross of more than $200 million. I recall when I was a young teen, going to a friend’s house, where his father was watching it on tape recorded off television and pointing out to me all the bits that had been censored, recalling with loving zest the sounds of cracking bone that were supposed to accompany certain moments. It’s still hard to believe that the seemingly robust man on screen would be dead within a few months of shooting so many amazing feats. Lee, like Fred Astaire, had a sense of theatre to his physical craft that contributed to his talent; he acted like the world’s most fearsome fighter, and so he was. His incredible speed and athletic ability were quite genuine, and the camera loved it. The fact that Lee was a canny actor helped. His affectation of taciturn confidence bends and gives way only at appropriate times but leaves you in little doubt he was more than just another good athlete who could look tough and attractive on screen.
Enter the Dragon represented an attempt, both commercially and aesthetically, to create a pan-Pacific film. Warner Bros. coproduced it with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest studio, and American director Robert Clouse handled the mostly Chinese crew. The film fused aesthetics laid out by the films of King Hu and other wu xia experts in the late ’60s with a flashy plot and tone reminiscent of many a sub-James Bond franchise. Indeed, Enter the Dragon bears far more resemblance to Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice than the film of it did. Like the Steve Reeves Hercules films 15 years earlier, Enter the Dragon accompanied the TV show Kung Fu in helping to kick off a craze for another film culture’s product in the United States, but this time, the gulf breached was broader. Suddenly, cinema and TV screens were filled with the sham-exotic delight of crudely dubbed Shaolin monks and warriors for peace and freedom in the time of the Manchus, worlds far outside the familiar points of reference for Eurocentric cultures. Lee’s prowess became, by proxy, heroic symbol, exacerbated in Enter the Dragon by Kelly’s presence and characterisation, confirming the close link of the growing popularity of the kung fu flick to the Blaxploitation genre’s celebration of personally empowered non-Caucasians—or to put it more concisely, brothers who kick ass.
Lee’s character, named Lee as if to further the conflation of the hero with the actor, is seen at the outset as a Shaolin disciple, battling another disciple (Sammo Hung), receiving the advice of a sage abbot (Roy Chiao), and becoming a teacher of younger would-be warriors. He’s quickly recruited by British spy boss Braithwaite (one-time-only actor Geoffrey Weeks) to infiltrate the island controlled by Han (Shih Kien), who, Lee learns from the abbot, was himself once a Shaolin disciple but who chose to use his gifts to gain wealth and power through evil. Han now controls a small army of martial arts adherents, and holds an occasional martial arts tournament that entices men seeking fortune and glory to compete. Lee soon learns that he has another, even more immediate reason to take on Han: several of his henchmen, including the senior thug Oharra (Robert Wall), attacked Lee’s sister Su Lin (Angela Mao) and caused her to commit suicide rather than be gang-raped. Lee signs up for the tournament. Clouse offers a neat formal device here as the three main protagonists, Lee, Williams (Kelly), and Roper (John Saxon) join the party embarking by junk for the island, their particular motives for venturing into this viper’s nest revealed in flashbacks as they’re ferried through the floating world of Hong Kong’s harbour. Williams and Roper are Vietnam veterans who fought together: where Roper has skipped from the U.S. ahead of mob loan sharks, Williams has beaten up a couple of racist cops.
Enter the Dragon’s style is quintessentially early ’70s, from Lalo Schifrin’s throbbing, propulsive jazz-funk score similar to his superlative work on Dirty Harry (1971), to Gilbert Hubbs’ zoom-patched cinematography. The New Wave-lite visual flourishes, like those zooms and the expositional flashbacks, help synthesise, on a visual level, the same mood of syncopated flashiness as the music, and this finds perfect accord with the film’s contemporaneous themes and fetishes. Director Clouse had previously made a well-received adaptation of a John D. MacDonald novel, Darker than Amber (1970), which had impressed Lee and co-producer Fred Weintraub. They took visual inspiration from comic books, particularly the popular Terry and the Pirates with its pseudo-oriental colouring to create the film’s specific ambience, which envisions the subsistence of a kind of Chinese warlord-chic into the second half of the 20th century. Williams, the self-empowered black hero, cuts a striking figure on the streets of Hong Kong, picked out on the prowl with energetic zooms in the same manner that John Shaft was in Gordon Parks’ 1971 trendsetter Shaft, evoking a kind of worldly man at once streetwise and fit for his environment but also without a natural harbour, giving potency to his pithy reckoning: “Ghettoes are the same the world over. They stink.”
Whilst both Roper and Williams were planning to attend the tournament either way, both are on the run from themselves. Williams’ conscientiousness balances the far glibber Roper, a compulsive gambler who tries to live the playboy lifestyle but finds the bill’s always bigger than his resources and is shocked to be confronted with evil of a kind he cannot make peace with. Roper’s the sort of character Burt Lancaster might have played 10 years earlier—a life-loving, appetite-indulging trickster with real skill to back up his braggart zest. The semblance to Lancaster’s characters in films like The Professionals (1966) is particularly keen when Roper claps eyes on Han’s head courtesan Tania (Ahna Capri) and murmurs, “A woman like that could teach you a lot about yourself.”
Clouse’s use of the Hong Kong location is attentive and flavourful, zeroing in on structures that mark the peculiar texture of the city—ultramodern and virtual shanty town, particularly in the harbour’s floating ghetto, coexisting with a peculiar tension that defines the storyline with its many twinning opposites. Michael Allin’s script doubles up motivation for Lee’s vengeance, in haphazard manner, whilst the dramatic development is generally only functional. But the flashback sequence to Su Lin’s death is great stuff, as Mao gives a terrific display of her own kung fu prowess, decimating henchmen left and right, as fate presses in. Su Lin is chased into the recesses of the waterfront until she’s trapped in a warehouse, surrounded by Han’s men as they bash their way in through doors and windows, and the sequence screws inwards towards its climactic point-of-view shot of Su Lin clutching a hunk of broken glass with Oharra glaring down at her, death or dishonour reduced to a singularly powerful picture that resolves with the plunge of the deadly edge of glass towards the camera.
Oharra and Bolo (Bolo Yeung) are Han’s main henchmen, enforcing tyrannical discipline on their adherents, many of whom have been harvested from a ruthlessly whittled assortment of social rejects and the desperate of Hong Kong. Bolo, in particular, represents the cruel side of Han’s regime, snapping the spines of lesser henchmen who prove inadequate. Han offers his competitors a kind of Playboy-spread macho fantasy, where readiness to engage in primal struggle is countered by a boyish reward of plenty. But Han’s Island becomes a variation on the place in Pinocchio (1940) where the children are indulged with fantastic plenty until they’re turned into donkeys for labour. Han greets his guests with a buffet of easy living and sex, which proves to be a seductive entrée to a process of elimination, weeding out weaklings and dissenters and absorbing talents into his criminal organisation of heroin dealing and forced prostitution.
Lee’s inevitable battle of retribution with Oharra comes, surprisingly in terms of the film’s structure, half-way through Enter the Dragon, as he comes up against the colossal brute in the course of the tournament and sees the Shaolin master easily and steadily clobbering the heavy. (Wall was another martial arts champion at the time and a pal of Lee’s: their ethos was one of full commitment to the fighting on screen, and a lot of filmed clobbering is undoubtedly and wince-inducingly real, though Lee was occasionally replaced by stuntman Yuen Wah for the more gymnastic shots.) Oharra, infuriated, tries to attack Lee from behind with broken bottles, but he’s still beaten, and Lee jumps on him and breaks his back, cueing the film’s most remarkable shot, a slow-motion close-up of Lee’s face, contorting with warrior rage and grief. This tremendous shot confirms Lee really was an actor, as his façade of stoic intensity melts for a moment, and becomes a fulcrum of the action genre: the immediate moral and psychic impact of killing is apparent on a hero’s face with specificity redolent of the films of Anthony Mann. The audience is aware that Lee, as both a Shaolin adherent and son of pacifists, is painfully violating many codes that are important to him, but won’t let them stand in the way of justice. Enter the Dragon is not built, like many classic Asian martial arts cinema (e.g., Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata , The One-Armed Swordsman , The 36th Chamber of Shaolin , or Clan of the White Lotus ) around the acquiring of gifts in confluence with spiritual and conscientious growth; rather the hero is utilising his gifts for righteousness having long since learned where his sense of that lies, but it’s still a burden for him to wage such intimate war.
Nonetheless, Lee doesn’t seem too beset by soul-searching otherwise, preferring to give the audience the kind of unabashed good guy that fell out of fashion in Hollywood in the early ’70s. Lee is fun to watch even when he’s not hitting people, which, considering that he’s playing such a clean-cut character, is doubly admirable. There’s wit in Lee’s performance, in his sarcastic eye rolls when listening to Roper’s jive, or his patiently bored expression as he waits for the cobra he’s foisted on a couple of Han’s guards. Most importantly, Lee’s sense of gestural effect, the quality that made him indelible to so many viewers, is easily apparent and unmistakeable: his high, loud screeches before leaping into battle, his habit of widening his eyes and giving a savagely gleeful, tigerlike loll of his jaw after he’s bested an opponent.
Lee infiltrates Han’s underground operation because he needs to use the only radio on the island, and discovers the depravities within, including women going mad from being pumped full of drugs to make them pliable slaves. When his presence is detected, he rips his way through a small army of henchmen, one of whom is 19-year-old Jackie Chan, in a whirlwind of physical dexterity and badass moves, including kicking two men in the face in one leap. Not the least of Enter the Dragon’s gifts to film posterity was in providing early proving grounds for the talents of Yeung, Hung, and Chan. One clever touch that allows the film to play out as an exercise in pure martial artistry is the fact that Han has banned guns on his island—it’s implied that he lost his hand thanks to one—completely freeing the drama from that usual bugbear of the modern-day martial-arts flick, “Why don’t they just shoot him?”
Much of Enter the Dragon’s punch is thanks to Clouse’s sense of slick, illustrative style, quoting liberally from various Western film masters as well as mimicking the Hong Kong industry’s templates. Much like Don Sharp’s terrific Fu Manchu films of the mid-’60s, Clouse creates a conversant mix of retro style and sharp modernity in turning pulp-fiction Orientalist tropes into compelling contemporary action fare, with the telling difference that now an Asian could also be the hero and kick Fu Manchu in the face. As with the Bond films, Fritz Lang’s early serials and expressionist thrillers cast a long shadow here. Han has a Rotwang-esque gloved hand that hides the fake he wears, the bones of his real hand mounted in his private sanctuary (“A souvenir!” is how he describes it to Roper). Of course, the fake hand comes off and is replaced by claws and blades in the climactic scenes, a touch that perfectly channels both the traditions of wu xia and the Lang-Bond influence. Clouse belongs in a category with some other American filmmakers to emerge from the matrix of late ’60s industry upheavals, like Tom Gries, Richard C. Sarafian, Hal Needham, and Ted Post, who are always left out of accounts of the decade’s official auteurist sagas, but who made a mark reconfiguring populist filmmaking with an influx of lightly contoured post-New Wave effects and successfully blending the slick, playful expectations of genre cinema with a patina of pseudo-realism. For Clouse, Enter the Dragon proved a problematic success, as he was pigeonholed as a martial arts filmmaker, handling the likes of the infamous Gymkata (1985).
Lee’s brief oeuvre, which had also included The Big Boss, about a kung fu hero who becomes a unionist warrior, and Lee’s self-directed Way of the Dragon (1973), where he was defending immigrants in Rome from the mob, concentrated on the ideal of accomplished physical champion of the weak, a compulsory aspect of the genre, of course, but also with a level of discomfort and introspection inherent in contemplating a globalising world where exploitation was nascent. Clouse and Allin bypass that anxiety for the most part, aiming rather, in spite of the background notes of racial angst and Vietnam fallout, for a kind of pan-cultural atmosphere. If I’d pick a major weakness of the film, it’s that it could have fleshed out the roles of Capri and Betty Chung, who plays Mei Ling, an undercover agent who has infiltrated Han’s operation. Mei Ling is largely superfluous, used only to set up action scenes. Tania’s peculiar status as Han’s right-hand woman, who nonetheless succumbs quite easily to Roper’s charms, is interesting, but left sadly underdeveloped, particularly in relation to the bittersweet climax. Lee, like a lot of action stars who would follow him, seemed sadly wary of romance on screen, preferring to project a monkish persona in that regard.
The main characters are well-delineated and enjoyable, however, with Roper and Williams well-used as worldly foils to the fixated brilliance of Lee, in trying to scam Han’s tournament. When Han tries to impress Williams into his operation, the radical resists, of course, prompting Han to murder him. He then tries the same offer with Roper, whose affectation of glib acquiescence to business is shattered finally when he’s confronted with Williams’ mangled, bloody body; in an act of moral decision, he refuses to fight Lee in the ring. Interestingly, only Saxon’s clout as a marketable name resulted in the plot developing this way, as Williams and Roper’s functions were swapped. What the film lost in potential radical clout by having Williams and Lee team up, it gained in entertainment value: Saxon is fun as Roper, with a swaggering, smarmy charm and some surprisingly deft martial arts moves, and his move from comic relief to full-on hero is neatly handled. Roper is forced to battle Bolo after refusing to fight Lee, and bests the hulking henchman at last with a kick in the balls, whereupon all hell breaks loose as the battle lines are drawn between the visitors and prisoners against Han’s army.
The climactic battle between Lee and Han is a great set-piece, and indeed any showing of Enter the Dragon on TV can arrest me in anticipation of it. Khan, who was cast in spite of his poor English precisely because he could offer Lee a strong foe, slashes our hero repeatedly with his razor-fingered fake hand, leading to one of Lee’s most amusingly tough-guy gestures: licking his own blood from his fingers after touching a wound, before clobbering Han in the face with a flying leap and kick, moves that were Lee signatures.
Han finally takes refuge in his mirror-lined bathroom, where reflection upon reflection mangles all sense of space and sense. This gives Clouse a chance to work a variation on the climax of Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1946). As in Welles’ films, this hall of mirrors presents an electrifying visual metaphor for the hero’s destruction of duplicitous images, as Lee recalls the advice of his mentor to smash the illusions his adversary presents and begins breaking the mirrors. Clouse’s visual control in this sequence is genuinely impressive, extracting tremendous visual jazz and excitement from a simple device, with the inevitable pay-off of Han finishing up skewered on one of his own weapons. The final shots of Enter the Dragon find a bloodied and frayed Roper scanning a battlefield of fallen warriors, with Tania amongst them, but still offering a thumbs-up of comradeship to Lee. There’s a rich sense of both the pleasure and cost of victory over evil here, an avoidance of heroic bombast, and a sense of humanity that enriches Enter the Dragon, in spite of its sketchy story, to a point far beyond the usual mercenary reflexes of action films, and marks it as something special.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai
By Roderick Heath
(This essay is on the Chinese version, not the international cut.)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to cinema screens after a lengthy fallow phase carries huge expectations for a man who, alongside John Woo and Zhang Yimou, is arguably the most reputed Chinese-language filmmaker worldwide. Wong gained his stature in international cinema in the 1990s partly for his lushly textured cinematic sensibility and partly because his trove of thematic interests, his simultaneous sense of vibrating modernity and underlying longing for the past, marked him as an artist with a finger on the pulse of the age.
With the landscape of urban Hong Kong as his hyperkinetic muse, Wong’s visual panache matched, on levels both explicit and sublime, his fascination with the problems of human accord. In films like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), he created a version of the modern world where human beings, as compartmentalised as the tiny apartments and hole-in-the-wall eateries they frequented, were floating human islets grazing against possible mates and friends. The simultaneous urges in the density of contemporary life towards isolating, alienating atomisation and compressed, forced communing worked a constant pressure on the psyches of his characters, who then maintained their own peculiar methods for holding the world at bay, like the shopgirl in Chungking Express who blares out “California Dreaming” as a wall of noise against a grubby reality. Wong’s vocabulary of images and ideas, his unique way of filtering them through storytelling conceits that seemed somehow hip and quaint all at once, essayed through one of the most virile, formalistically confident eyes in contemporary film.
Wong briefly stepped out of his familiar mode with a take on the wu xia genre with the epic Ashes of Time (1995, revised 2007), but that film, which had a troubled production, proved a typically hallucinatory, internalised revision on that style, with Wong distorting it to suit his own mood rather than vice versa. His shift into a semi-historical perspective on his key concerns with In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004), presented mesmeric studies in shifting cultural paradigms, his singular men and manifold women living and drowning in seas of neon-lit, corrosive emotions, which clearly continued his favourite themes but now accented them through a love of nostalgic artifice. His most famous characters, the suffering twosome of In the Mood for Love, refused to succumb to amoral pleasures in a quietly upending age, and finished up wounding themselves, but got on with the painful business of living. The general critical failure of Wong’s U.S. excursion My Blueberry Nights (2006) after 2046’s mixed response nonetheless demanded Wong retreat and reorientate. The Grandmaster sounds in abstract like a shift of direction for the director in tackling a biopic that’s also a martial-arts action drama. But, as the melancholic warriors of Ashes of Time and the oddball spin on the loner-assassin motif in Fallen Angels portended, The Grandmaster proves rather a dizzying sprawl of images and almost associative storytelling methods that revise how this, or indeed any, kind of filmmaking can deliver. It may be Wong’s most stylistically and thematically ambitious work.
The grandmaster of the title is Ip Man, a figure with folk-hero lustre in Hong Kong for popularising the Wing Chun kung-fu style and, amongst many students, most famously taught Bruce Lee. Ip Man has already been the subject of films and TV series, including a pair of popular recent films starring Donnie Yen. But in Wong’s hands, Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) proves as much mediating viewpoint, conceptual linchpin, and witness to an era’s passions and tragedies as he is protagonist. Wong’s film ultimately becomes more akin to a heroic epic in the original sense, in that it’s partly about the deaths and births of nations, in this case the severance of modern China from its past, and the creation of modern Hong Kong. Wong tests Ip Man’s folk-hero status less by de-romanticising him than by studying the forces that create such figures and bury others. Thus, Wong turns the stuff of paperback heroism into raw material for one of his elusively poetic meditations on time and fate.
Whereas Wong’s early, young characters were always nagged by ennui, because of their sense of disconnection from the past, his later, older ones are always haunted by its contradictory loss and simultaneous, unavoidable influence on the present. Ip becomes one of Wong’s dreamer exiles, first glimpsed engaged in spectacular battle with challengers on the streets of his native city of Foshan, possibly in the course of his actual job, which was as a policeman. The opening credits see architectural and decorative patterns and inky credits warp and dissolve in water, introducing the film’s constant motif of water as visual conduit for time, whilst the fight takes place before a set of iron gates that become a recurring image invoking Ip’s life and losses. Ip is glimpsed in a bar pronouncing the essence of Kung Fu: “Two words. Horizontal. Vertical. Make a mistake—horizontal. Stay standing, and you win.”
This essentialist formula for fighting could make an equally good one for life in general, and Wong proceeds with that very assumption, albeit in a fashion that explores the different ways one can win and lose, fail and fight. Wong immediately depicts the more thrilling version, as he starts his film in the midst of a violent melee. Ip smashes his way through a dozen street toughs, including one fearsome opponent, Tiexieqi (Cung Le), who squares off with him in a one-on-one battle, the duo churning in the tempest like saurian beasts. This scene is an ecstatic deployment of cuts and camera moves, rendered in stark, near-monochrome colours: shots alternate blindingly fast moves and slow-motion close-ups of hands, feet, clothing, raindrops, broken glass, and walloping blows. A rickshaw is hilariously crushed by the simultaneous blows of Ip and his opponent, and the enemy finishes up sprawled on a toppled iron gate, flattened by a fearsome flying kick by Ip, who then strides away tugging the rim of his jaunty white hat like a Chinese version of a Bogart hero, confirmed in his Herculean talents. Other battles like this recur throughout The Grandmaster, but they’re largely untethered to any specific sense of narrative cause and effect. They are, rather, sufficient unto themselves as islets of furious action, displays of the physical genius of Ip and “Razor” Yixiantian (Chang Chen), exiles from the Mainland now surviving in the urban wilderness of mid-century Hong Kong, more depictions of their existential situations than battles for any real end. Wong’s fragmentation of the fights into impressionistic affairs turns the battlers into cosmic forces, working upon beads of water and other objects in the same way history at large works on these people.
Wong sets up a dialogue between his narrative in shifting between Hong Kong in the mid ’50s, and mainland China in the late ‘30s, when Ip, a citizen of Foshan and then on the cusp of his forties, first gained real fame in the martial arts community when he was chosen to represent the loose confederacy of southern Chinese martial arts schools against a northern fighter. Ip’s voiceover says that at the time, we was in the long spring of his life as a wealthy family man married to the lovely Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo), who watches over her husband with a solicitous, indulgent eye and is described as “a woman of few words, because she knew their power.” But the stability of his life was counterpointed by his accomplishment as a martial artist, having been anointed as a promising figure in his youth by the aged founder of the Wing Chun school, Chan Wah-Shun (illustrious director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping).
The challenge from the north is brought by a potentate of martial artistry and the values attendant to it, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Gong unified northern schools into a federation and has nominated formidable protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his successor. But he still plans to duel a southerner himself, as he believes Ma San is too aggressive and hungry to make a name for himself. Ip volunteers as a challenger in noting that he’s a comparative nobody, but his challenge is accepted because the battle in the rain has gained him notoriety. His nomination as champion is controversial as he’s still largely unproven as a fighter, and he’s rigorously challenged by fellow southern experts to make sure he can handle the various northern styles. Gong himself has a young daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who’s learned her clan’s famed “64 hands” technique, but whom her father wants to become a doctor and avoid the sometimes brutal world he inhabits.
The film’s early scenes, taking place in 1937, are set almost entirely within the Republic House, a brothel nicknamed the Gold Pavilion by clientele, which the southern Kung Fu adherents frequent as a kind of clubhouse and occasional field of battle. Wong’s recreation of the vanished world of classy, institutional bawdyhouses and the martial arts fraternity is similar in mood to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s studies of fin-de-siècle moods and aesthetics in Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Three Times (2006). In contrast to Hou’s static panoramas, however, Wong’s rendering is replete with dreamlike, elliptical and obtuse framings that suggest the bustle and intimacy of this world, as well as its claustrophobic, clannish qualities. Wong’s camera is as happy caressing the hems of dresses and shoes of its characters, like noting the tiny bound feet of the Peking Opera artist who gives Ip one of his tests wearing dainty boots that belie her amazing athleticism and skill, as it is recording the fearsome speed and detail of the fighting styles. The ornate atmosphere is violated when fights take place, as when Ma San swats aside several southerners who try to challenge Gong, sending them crashing through walls and down stairwells, or flipping them right around with casual contempt. Ip prizes precision above all things in kung fu, a trait that serves him largely well in fights that take place within the stately confines of the Gold Pavilion, but which later foils him in a telling fashion.
When the time comes for his fight with Gong, however, Ip finds the master has more than a mere match of physical skill in mind. He poses a problem that demands philosophical rigour as well—to try to break a cake Gong holds and simultaneously ponder the dumpling as a symbol for China itself and the martial arts community’s place in it, as the pressure of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the flailing responses from the Kuomintang seem destined to cause the south to secede. Ip succeeds in snapping the cake and answers the riddle by dismissing its precept, in arguing that their kind can look beyond their own borders and consider the world their field of interest. There’s a clever confluence here, in anticipating the effect Ip’s ideas would have on the international popularity of kung fu, whilst also paying heed to a great genre motif of posing a challenge to the young would-be master that’s as much spiritual and intellectual as physical. Gong warns Ip that his victory will make him famous and a target because everyone will want to fight him. He’s immediately confronted by Gong Er, who is determined to regain her family’s honour. Thus, another great stock figure of wu xia enters the tale, or rather two: the vengeful offspring of a defeated champion and the plucky female warrior wanting to prove herself in the arena.
Wong assiduously deconstructs these figures, but also elevates Gong Er’s conflation of them to a status of classical tragic heroine. When the old men who patronise her suggest her predicament is the will of heaven, she retorts with razor-sharp contempt, “Maybe I am the will of heaven,” a statement of tremendous pith but also hubris on her part, highlighting the tragic theme most precisely. Unsurprisingly for a director who has tended in the past to luxuriate in his actresses as both performers and imagistic fetishes, particularly the veritable harem of 2046, to a degree scarcely seen since the heady days of Sternberg and Dietrich, Zhang soon becomes the magnetic pole of the film. Gong Er and Ip’s battle in the Gold Pavilion sees martial arts mastery take on cryptic sexual qualities, bringing the equally talented man and woman into the most startling intimacy possible without any actual erotic contact, faces brushing within millimetres of each other as their bodies orbit, gravity made nonsense by their will and skill. Gong Er technically bests Ip by forcing him to land heavily on a step and break it, thus violating his own rule, and the two part seemingly as friendly equals. They are haunted thereafter by recollections of the fight and its dreadful intimacy, and they continue to correspond in planning a return bout for which Ip will head north, even buying his wife a coat for a winter journey. But the outbreak of new war soon sees Ip lose his two daughters, his money and home, his wife, and finally, his country.
Many of Wong’s films are close to being omnibus works, collections of interlocked short stories in which elements mirror and repeat with algorithmic variations, with characters and situations that comment on each other sometimes in isolated episodes and other times in counterpoint. The Grandmaster is looser in this regard, as his shifts of time zone and focal character are less formally precise, in keeping with a story that works more as a chain of vignettes than a linear account. Although Wong certainly tells a story, he privileges loose ends and fragmentary insights as much as he does the core plot, justified by the nature of his tale and his essential point about Ip Man as an avatar for an age that tore societies to shreds. People are lost to time and memory. Both Ip’s wife and children are ripped away from him by war, and the world he knew disintegrates under the pressure of history, which he describes as going from spring to winter in one moment. Wong’s filmmaking follows suit, as he leaves behind the amber tints and fraternal bosom of the Gold Pavilion for visions of Gong Er standing in snowy vistas and riding steam trains bustling with industrial-age power. Gong Er encounters Razor, a nationalist spy and another superlatively talented warrior who’s been wounded and is trying to hide from Japanese soldiers searching the train that’s taking Gong Er to medical school. Gong Er pretends to be Razor’s sweetheart, and, once the soldiers leave, Razor and Gong Er share a charged moment of tactile communion before he flees.
Wong employs film references galore throughout The Grandmaster, and this scene particularly recalls Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), except with Gong Er the willing saviour rather than randomly chosen target in fake romantic contact to throw off pursuers; hints of Brief Encounter (1945) percolate as well. Here, as elsewhere in the film, however, Wong employs melodrama tropes only to fracture them and study them like facets of hallucinatory beauty and artifice, creating a romantic dream expostulated in fetishized textures: the ice on the window, the blood dripping from the seat and caking Razor’s hands as he fondles Gong Er’s fur coat, all forming a moment of distilled fantasy-nostalgia. Razor never becomes a major protagonist like Ip and Gong Er in spite of his seeming lode of lethal cool and ability; rather he becomes a contrapuntal figure to both, finding a niche for himself later in Hong Kong as a barber and pacifier who keeps gangsters from taking control of the street. But Razor never gains the kind of status Ip does in spite of his action-hero background. Wong here ventures into territory similar to Quentin Tarantino (a fan and proponent) as he invokes the metatextual nature that often inflects genre storytelling, particularly in wu xia, based in a common pool of mythology, with characters transgressing the boundaries of tales and tellers and gaining some life of their own. Razor, who could be the hero of his own story, becomes a memorable bit player in Gong Er’s, just as she is one in Ip’s legend as Wong tells it. Gong Er’s own fate is bound up with her fervent need to prove herself a worthy vessel for her clan’s legacy.
When Ma San became a collaborator with the Japanese, Gong disowned him and the two fought, with Ma San killing the old man. Gong Er was aggrieved and further stung by the requests of her father’s clansmen and adherents that she desist from reprisal. Only her bodyguard and clan loyalist Jiang (Tielong Shang), sticks by her. She asked for a sign whilst praying in a temple if her father approved of her desire for vengeance, at the price of giving up all other worldly fulfilments, and received it in the form of a candle burning before a Buddha statue. Wong certainly offers everything one could hope for in the mode of a romantic-action epic. There’s a tale of unrequited love, thunderous fights, a grand revenge saga, a strident bad guy, a determined revenger, a vast scope, and extraordinary vistas portraying an exotic, lost world. Only Wong breaks it all with his conceptual hammer and then pastes it back together as pulp travesty transformed into poetic saga—and yet there’s reality behind even some of the film’s more romantic conceits. Gong Er, for instance, is based on a woman who shot a warlord in the back after 10 frustrating years of seeking revenge against him for killing her father. Such touches confirm the sensation that there’s another element in play here, detectable even without reading interviews with Wong that confirm it: he’s trying to recreate the Hong Kong he grew up in, where men and women with legendary pasts had retreated into hidey-holes in their new home, getting on with the banal business of living. Because of the outlawing of the martial arts schools by the Maoist government in 1949, all of the masters vacated en masse for Hong Kong.
One might contrast Wong’s investigation of this fecund theme with a far less imaginative film like Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), which could only state, not find dramatic irony in the fact that its irrepressible real-life protagonists finished up running a Brooklyn trucking firm. Wong takes a step further back than In the Mood for Love and 2046, films which achingly recreated the Hong Kong of Wong’s youth in the brief time of pacific grace between the Maoist triumph in China and the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia and looks to the even crueller crucible of the age before, transmuted via legendary characters. Characters like Jiang, who was once an imperial executioner (and the character in The Grandmaster who most clearly looks like a classic wu xia stock figure), and Gong Yutian’s contemporary and fellow in pre-Republic revolutionary assassination Ding Lianshan (Benshan Zhao), harken back even further to the forces that dragged China into the modern age. Crucial to the film’s structure is the disparity as well as the attraction between Ip and Gong Er: whereas Ip obeys the precepts of his Wing Chun creed and keeps moving forward in spite of awful loss, Gong Er renders herself a prisoner to the past. Wong underscores the mirroring in Ip and Razor’s experiences by depicting both in thrilling, visceral battles in the rain, except that where Ip’s fight is bloodless, Razor has to contend with assassins trying to knife him. Shots of blood falling into rainwater and sullying it communicate the essence of a more primal, brutal aspect to Razor’s experiences, as he’s pushed from nationalist patriot to lone-wolf survivor in the Hong Kong street.
Wong, who spent a year obsessively editing this film, finally turned in a rapturous mural of oneiric images, all carrying the powerful sensatory charge of sights, sounds, even scents recalled from a past just over the horizon: the whole thing could be an opium hallucination breathed in by Gong Er in her declining days, much like one of its evident models, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Grandmaster is feverishly drunk on its own highly romantic, deeply aestheticized take on a lost past. Undoubtedly for wu xia aficionados there are references and genre tropes aplenty here to masticate, but its cinematic language and references are far wider. Its closest relative in recent western filmmaking as a realm of thundering steam trains, stylised elemental extremes, and fervent human feeling, was Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), and David Lean seems a point of common reference. But whereas Wright’s film was dancelike and theatrical, Wong’s is at once dense and aerated, musical in texture.
The opening fight sequence seems to take up the gauntlet thrown down by a great scene in Yimou’s Hero (2002) where action, rain, and music entwined in a synergistic dance. Indeed the stylistic gauntlet Yimou threw down with his deliriously stylised wu xia movies has remained a standing challenge for action filmmakers worldwide since, as Yimou turned his artful eye to aestheticizing genre precepts with Hero and House of the Flying Daggers (2004) with formalistic brilliance and purified, archaic, thematic concerns. Wong’s aims are ultimately different: he doesn’t offer patriotic apologia as Yimou did in Hero, nor create an uncomfortable crossbreed as Yimou did in The Curse of the Golden Flower (2005), but rather meditates on the nature of modern peace as a catharsis bought by conspicuously ignoring the horrors of the recent past. Wong confirms his debt to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America by including a music cue from that delirious saga, but the kinship is equally signalled by shared traits and motifs, like railway stations, exile, and opium as both plot devices and style keys. Indeed, if Tsui Hark hadn’t already claimed the title, Once Upon a Time in China might have made a good name for this film.
Where Leone and Lean were sleek, spacious, classical stylists even when adopting elliptical storytelling devices, however, Wong is situated in some post-Impressionist zone, piecing together his vision in points and patches of colour and light. Wong manages to produce a film that is both intensely thoughtful, replete with sequences of quiet intensity that nonetheless remains in near constant motion, achieving a kind of ecstatic flux that can, like a great kung fu fighter, shift from any stance to another with ease. The beauty of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s photography is both heightened and undercut by Wong’s fast-paced, occasionally enigmatic, eliding approach to cutting. Potentially languorous tracking shots are constantly cut off mid-flow, and early scenes are filled with vertiginous barricades between figures within frames, capturing the hermetic aspects of the time and place, as esoteric soup recipes and ancient creeds have their last moments of exacting consequence. One recurring shot depicts two fighters facing off with one centre-frame, the other circling into the shot closer to the camera, and the cut coming as they block out the opponent, cumulatively creating a tension and amplifying the sense of physical intricacy. Conversely, when he’s shooting fights, Wong becomes fiendishly precise, opposite to most other contemporary filmmakers, often alternating from eye-level shots to high, overhead views in obedience to the lateral-horizontal precepts of Ip’s philosophy.
Leone’s influence is particularly strong in the nominal climax, in a railway station on New Year’s Eve, 1940, when Gong Er finally ambushed Ma San and taunted him into a duel. Wong partly spoils his own climax with a flash-forward already depicting Gong Er in 1952, a cagey, still-beautiful but frail and haunted woman who resists Ip’s entreaties to teach him the 64 hands technique. Her battle with Ma San, the culmination of her campaign of payback, is an instant classic and indeed perhaps the best individual sequence in any movie of the past 10 years. Similar to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), it commences with a long wait in the railway station as Gong Er studies flames in a brazier whilst Jiang sits on the platform, drifting in a wintry reverie where even the flicker of light bulbs and the swirl of snowflakes seem invested with ineluctable sense of momentous forces gathering: Gong Er strides through steam and smoke like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), anointed as a titanic hero. In her furious bout with Ma San, they badly wound each other. Ma San seems to come out the worse, as he ricochets off a moving train and is left sprawled on the platform, admitting defeat and allowing Gong Er her moment of triumph. But when she returns home, she coughs up blood and faints in a shot of deeply morbid ecstasy.
Wong provides the pay-off for the grand revenge saga the audience expects, but with a radical tweak that fulfils a note many other action films only suggest. For Gong Er, her defeat of Ma San is the highpoint of her life, a moment after which everything else, thanks to her vows, can only be addendum, anti-climax, and wastage. The Grandmaster‘s concluding passages are a return to classic Wong territory as it reduces its vast tapestry to a portraitist study in frustrated romantic melancholy, as Gong Er and Ip Man encounter each other in Hong Kong. Gong Er confesses her pained and resigned desire for Ip, whilst never releasing herself from the strictures of her vows, and a button, saved from the winter coat Ip bought for his wife for their planned trip north, becomes the orphaned relic of their mutual desire. Ziyi’s face, tearful and yet perfectly composed, becomes at last a pool of wan splendour, calmly studied after the furious onrush of the film preceding this moment. Gong Er dissolves like a dream in a welter of opium and visions of herself as an impossibly perfect girl practising her moves like a dancer in the snow. Ip finds himself stranded in the present tense, taunted by his own emotional imperfection and losses, with his wife dying on the mainland, separated from him by more than water or politics. Nonetheless, he survives, artfully clobbering his way to preeminence in Hong Kong and becoming mentor for a new generation. Undoubtedly, The Grandmaster might prove a frustrating experience for viewers expecting a traditionally structured story that delivers familiarly neat character arcs and studious explication. Indeed, Wong’s original concept was just such a movie. But the finished film is a different, far more adventurous success, a bold, extraordinarily executed fusion of approaches that adds up to a genuinely great cinema experience.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Tony Siu-Tung Ching
By Roderick Heath
Deep within the tangled growth of a dark forest lies an ancient ruin, a place where lost or weary travellers might find a place to rest for the night. But in the glow of moonlight, a mysterious and beautiful female emerges from the shadows. She approaches with seductive, otherworldly tenderness, and the traveller, stunned and smitten, can only submit, but at the peril of their soul, as they graze the boundaries of the liminal and fall in love with an emanation from beyond.
You know where this is going, because it’s the basic outline of dozens upon dozens of ghost stories. It’s a simple narrative that exploits a kind of idle masculine fantasy, charging it with warning and delineating the boundaries of taboo through the image of the death-dealing temptress and the evocation of evil in a place cordoned off by legend to commemorate some forgotten travesty of history and invested over time with fetid psychological symbolism. Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) are some Western film variations; Eastern takes include episodes in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968).
Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s variation, based on a novel by Songling Pu, is something different—a crossbreed of this Gothic-flavoured nightmare scenario with the high-flying, reality-bending action of wu xia, the meat-and-potato genre of Chinese cinema. Blends of supernatural and mythical drama with swashbuckling exploits are fairly common in wu xia, and in the annals of Hong Kong action film. Tsui Hark’s canonical fantasy action work Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1982) and Lau Kun Wai’s nutty Mr. Vampire (1985) did it before Ching, as the Bride with White Hair diptych would afterwards. Ching is one of Hong Kong cinema’s most employed stunt and action choreographers, but he has maintained a directing career as well, with the three entries in his A Chinese Ghost Story series the most famous.
The grandmaster of Hong Kong cinema’s international emergence in the 1960s, King Hu, had experimented with melding spirituality and action and had filmed another Songling Pu story as the epic A Touch of Zen (1972). The first episode of Ching’s take was produced by Hark, and the imprint of that master’s rocket-paced, breathless sensibility is all over Ching’s work. But there is a delicate, but fervent romantic streak counterpointing the ebullience in Ching’s first two terrific films (the third is generally regarded as a flat retread of the first and lacks two important actors) helps to mark out A Chinese Ghost Story I & II as gems of 1980s Hong Kong cinema and that distinguishes Ching’s sensibility, even in later, blander work like The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Ching’s cleverest tweaks to the old mythos was to transform the ghostly female figure from agent of death to pawn struggling for freedom, and uncover an element of dreamy longing and rebellion against the oppressive nature of social norms.
The intensely rhythmic opening evokes fetishistic, erotic qualities, a swooning succession of wind-driven autumnal leaves, drenched moonlight, dangling silks, burning candles, hazy nocturnal light, breathily suggested sensuality, and exposed flesh, as a young taxman is seduced by a spectral woman. The bells on the anklet of Tsiao-Tsing Nieh (Joey Tsu-hsien Wang) ring when locked in the folds of love, summoning an awful thing from the woods to launch itself upon the man she pretends to embrace but, in fact, holds as prey. Destined to encounter these supernatural emissaries is a young tax collector, Ning Choi Sin (the lamented, ever-charming Leslie Cheung), who passes through a regional city. Law and order there are kept by an incompetent, overeager gendarmerie who assume everyone running must be a wanted criminal. Ning is beset by multiple humiliations as a callow youth playing the one official everyone wants to avoid, without horse or funds to buy him a dry place to sleep for the night. When he tries to collect taxes from one tavern keeper, he finds that rain has rendered all of the entries in his record book illegible.
Penniless, Ning asks where he might spend a sheltered night. He is directed to the ruined Lan Ro Temple by townsfolk whose murmuring disquiet at his obliviousness evokes a trillion horror movie peasants. Ching turns canard into satirical coup as Ning keeps pausing and glancing back over his shoulder at the crowd, who all cease rhubarbing and play dumb until he starts off again. He reaches the long-abandoned temple deep in the woods and straddling a lake, bathed in blue moonlight and fog and swirling leaves. Ning is chased by wolves, which stop at the threshold, and is then caught between two super-talented martial arts warriors battling in the grounds of the temple. The frighteningly brilliant Taoist warrior-monk Yin Chek Hsia (Ma Wu) duels with his long-time challenger Hsia-hou (Wai Lam), who’s determined to best the monk but has never succeeded. Poised uncomfortably between their sword points, Ning spouts desperate pacifications: “Love will conquer the world! Love is a powerful weapon!” Hsia-hou stalks off whilst Yin, who’s holed up at the temple trying to hide from a world of such competitive men, tells Ning to leave him alone. Hsia-hou comes across Tsiao-Tsing bathing in a river and tries to seduce her, leading to his exsanguinating death by the mysterious monster. When Yin comes in search of him, he’s attacked by Hsia-hou’s withered zombie remnant.
The Taoist destroys the zombie with magic, whilst Ning spends the night in a temple wing filled with other zombies who, despite his proximity, keep failing in their attempts to catch the oblivious taxman. Ning is drawn out of the temple by the strains of an instrument being plucked in the temple grounds: he finds the musician is Tsiao-Tsing, lustrously beautiful and hauntingly melancholic. With his mixture of bumbling well-meaning and innocence, Ning makes the lady fall in love with him. Tsiao-Tsing has a secret, however, that is no small lover’s hindrance: she’s actually the ghost of a murdered woman whose father was also killed before he could properly bury her and perform the necessary rituals to help her become reincarnated. Now she’s in thrall to a demon that can alternate between the forms of a tree monster, with an enormously long tongue, and an androgynous human overlord with a retinue of malevolent ghost-women. The demon is planning to wed Tsiao-Tsing to its evil overlord, Lord Dark, in the netherworld because, as Yin says in the film’s most pertinent line, “Spirits use each other, just like people.” The centrality of the romantic passion between Ning and Tsiao-Tsing enriches A Chinese Ghost Story enormously without ever slowing the film’s breakneck pacing or giddy inventiveness.
A Chinese Ghost Story, a pinnacle of Hong Kong film, also represents in turn an exemplar of a showbiz ethic, one that aims to offer a variety of entertainment, shifting from thunderous action to scares to romantic melodrama to slapstick comedy to musical numbers, without fatal tonal uncertainty or narrative diffusion. This replicated a presumption which Hollywood filmmaking once accepted but since abandoned in favour of focus-grouped niche markets, kept alive rather in the mass-audience-serving style of Hong Kong film and Bollywood. A Chinese Ghost Story readily includes all these elements, including breaks for song numbers. Both episodes are loaded with horror-movie tropes, but Ching quickly reveals his love for silent comedy, channeling the influence of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, always well-remembered Hollywood icons in Hong Kong film, in Ning’s beleaguered but hardy approach to the hilariously overdrawn problems life keeps throwing his way. Ching’s intricate staging of comedy situations could become silly if they weren’t handled with deft invention and timing, qualities that work hand in hand with wu xia’s emphasis on precise physical skill and wit. In his first appearance, Ning tries to eat a dumpling that proves so hard it can crack rocks. A later comic bit turns into a miniature epic of taboo-grazing and suspense-mongering mixed with low comedy as Tsiao-Tsing hides Ning from the demon and her ghost-slaves when they come to visit her in the temple. She forces him into her bath to hide under the water, doing everything in her power to keep one of the more curious ghosts from looking into the bath, including breathing water into his lungs via a kiss and finally diving in and sitting on top of the increasingly breathless bureaucrat. Ching delights here in dodging around the usually prim behaviour in popular Chinese cinema whilst not breaking the rules. The comedic and suspense elements dovetail beautifully in a climactic moment as Ning tries to climb a ladder even as it’s being eaten by the monster, thus climbing frantically to nowhere.
A Chinese Ghost Story is, in familiar fashion, partly the tale of Ning’s maturation. As he begins to learn how to make his way in the world, he hits upon the bright idea of faking all of the erased entries in his ledger and successfully intimidates debtors into paying up. Ning’s true rite of passage is doing battle with evil, of course, a labour in which he’s not greatly talented or effective, but he transcends himself through the strength of his ardour. Tsiao-Tsing saves him several times with her supernatural powers, and she and Yin take on most of the action sequences. Deeply knowledgeable in the occult and supernatural warfare, Yin uses the paraphernalia of his religion and black magic as well as martial arts prowess to battle evil, and chases spirits through into the netherworld. Yin’s formidable gifts and cold capacity to recognise and take out ghost women makes him an oddball blend of the familiar variety of wu xia hero—a warrior who has mastered arts both physical and spiritual, giving them herculean skill and poise—mixed with the Van Helsing-esque variety of evil-battling savant, with overtones of a third tradition linked to both: the superhero. Yin is mistaken at first for a murderer by Ning, who sees him decapitate one of the tree demon’s ghostly underlings and glimpses his face on a wanted poster, which proves to be the image of Yin’s outlaw brother. The young bureaucrat tries to report Yin to the local magistrate, who is so timorous that he’s happy to take any excuse to ignore the problems posed by Lan Ro Temple, striking a note of satire over the ostriches and puppet masters of politics that extends more cogently into the sequel. Soon enough, however, Ning and Yin form a team, and Yin abruptly starts tearfully confessing how he’s let his anger over being confronted by challengers alienate him from humanity.
The very title A Chinese Ghost Story conflates parochial qualities with sarcasm. The story is grounded in the peculiarities of Chinese folklore and the accumulation of religious and spiritual concepts from multiple cultural influences, ineffably different to European precepts and yet subject to the same historical patterns. Ching presents a world where the incorporeal and earthly can meet and shift between states almost at will. The raw symbolic qualities of ghostliness, as embodiments of loss, of unfulfilled responsibility towards the dead, of fear of the unknown, and other permeable emotions that dog us, are considered as part of the texture of everyday existence. The narrative duel pits abstracted good against evil, but each is associated with different levels of religious belief and concomitant social ideas. The primal undertow of animism, associated with sacrifice and an oppressive, ancient, feudal/patriarchal hierarchism that subjugates Tsiao-Tsing to its power for despicable ends, is embodied by the ancient tree demon. This is pitted against the more enlightened religious creeds of Taoism and Buddhism, with their singular spiritual beneficence and capacity to meet chaos with order. Evil is battled not with crucifixes and holy water, but mantras and written sutras.
But the title’s cheekier quality is located in another dimension, that is, the manner in which it combines and coherently contrasts distinctive localised storytelling modes. The narrative sends horror story crashing headlong into comedy and freewheeling action, with the spirits and demons serving similar purposes to aliens for Hollywood blockbusters, a reminder that Ching followed Hark in trying to compete with and outdo the flash of Hollywood on a limited budget. Even fiends from hell prove fallible to the right bit of chop-socky know-how. It’s this hyped-up quality, the genre-hopping energy and gall of Ching’s films, that spur me to consider them adventure films, as they travel well beyond the psychological miasmas of horror tales as well as wu xia’s shared trait with Westerns, in that they both detail personality clashes and morality plays in terms of action. Here, as in Greek myth, battles with supernatural forces are merely part of the texture of a grand battle of humankind to dominate the earth around them and even venture into lands beyond, and, like many true adventure tales, the heroes engage in rebellion against repressive orders. And throughout it all, comedy and tragedy masks frame every gesture with an emotional directness that again feels like it belongs to a longer, older tradition.
The vivacity of Ching’s imagery and the compulsive drive of his filmmaking provide a centrifugal force that compels the various, usually quite distinct building blocks to form a coherent whole, a whole that overcomes the occasionally jarring shifts in approach, and finally dances on air as deftly as its heroes. Ching creates indelible visual impressions, like the grotesque sight of the tree demon’s colossal, tentacle-like tongue slashing through the undergrowth and writhing under the feet of the heroes. The penile invasive tip tries to dive into their mouths to drain their essences, enhances the already queasy erotic quality of the great tongue, an image of perverse evil that contrasts and manipulates the enticing feminine grace of Tsiao-Tsing. Ching wreathes shimmering mist and diffused light around the starkly atmospheric environs of Lan Ro, with the hauntingly lovely sight of Tsiao-Tsing’s white-and-red-clad form dashing through the misty trees, with sleeves of flowing silk that can become rescuing ropes and animated tendrils. This quality of unearthly beauty appended to the usual wire-fu shenanigans would show up again in the Bride with White Hair films and Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
The undertone of hazy eroticism and romantic languor is never entirely quelled by all the action, climaxing in a rapturous scene in which Tsiao-Tsing and Ning fulfil otherwise unquenchable longing by writing a poem together, creating a missive shot full of mysterious imagery that is so vague and affecting that in the sequel it’s mistaken for some kind of secret political message. The act of writing is imbued with the same romantic and totemic power it possesses in the climactic scenes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Hero (2002), and, in a way, the lovers’ penning of their poem is political, as it is a placard for their independence, with the films siding with young rebels against the malicious, life-sapping dictates of forced marriage. Whilst the Old Evil is bested in combat, the film resolves with Ning desperately attempting to keep exterminating light from falling on Tsiao-Tsien, who finally has to retreat into the urn with her ashes to protect herself. She cannot emerge again to see Ning, and he must perform the necessary rites to send her on in her reincarnation cycle.
Ching’s sequel lacks the romantic passion and the structure of the original, but in some other ways is superior. With a larger budget and zestier staging, he embraces an ever more madcap approach to his blend of action, comedy, and supernatural power. With Tsiao-Tsing freed from the bonds of the demon and hopefully allowed to gain reincarnation, Ning travels on his lonely way, only to be imprisoned, escape, and fall into the company of another warrior monk, this time a Buddhist called Autumn (Jacky Cheung): Autumn takes Ning for a thief when he rides off on Autumn’s horse, in the mistaken belief that it has been provided to facilitate his escape. Autumn, as well as possessing the same proficiency in white magic as Yin, can dig his way through the earth at great speed like some sort of mutant gopher.
The duo are attacked by spooks in the woods, which for some reason, do not set Autumn’s infallible nose for the supernatural tickling; in reality, they’re not spooks at all, but a band of freedom fighters in disguise. The band is led by sisters Windy (Joey Wang again) and Moon (Michelle Reis), who want to rescue their father, Lord Fu (Siu-Ming Lau), a former official who’s been arrested and charged with treason for trying to criticize the autocracy of the Imperial court. The fighters mistake a bearded Ning for Elder Chu Kot, the intellectual with whom Ning was imprisoned and whose writings inspired both the Lord’s arrest and his faction’s rebellion. Ning is transfixed by Windy’s amazing resemblance to Tsiao-Tsing, wondering if, against all seeming logic, she is her reincarnation. Both sisters in turn are love-struck by the man they believe to be their wise revolutionary guru.
Ching devotes a lot of the first half of A Chinese Ghost Story II to trying to top his first film’s physical comedy and action set-pieces, and succeeds, if at the expense of narrative contiguity, especially in two extended sequences of ribaldry. As in the first episode, the plot revolves around a haunted temple, except this time the locale is chosen by the freedom fighters as a place to ambush the convoy taking Lord Fu to the Emperor, and proves to be inhabited a large saurian demon that ponderously stalks potential victims in the temple. When Ning and Autumn first enter the temple, Autumn endeavours to teach Ning an incantation that can freeze anything in its tracks. Ning accidentally freezes Autumn while practising it at exactly the same time that the hulking demon bears down up them: Ning desperately tries to fend off the creature and communicate with Autumn through eye movements to learn the counter-curse. At one point all three become frozen in a pose with the beast, claws about to furl about the heroes, dribbling drool down on Ning’s cheek. The level of farceur skill shown here by the two Cheungs, and the way Ching cleverly weaves it in with the animatronics of the monster, is rare and splendid. A second, equally adroit if sillier scene enlarges upon the first film’s bathtub scene, as Ning tries to avoid compromising the two Wu sisters when he tries to alert a bathing Windy to the monster’s presence, and then tries to cover for Windy as she tries to get dressed without being seen by Moon and the other warriors and retreats to a loft, where the monster stalks her, in a dance of embarrassment and timorous sexuality.
Whilst both women are taken by Ning, he only has eyes for the one who looks like Hsiao-Hsien; when Moon gets the message, she transfers her affections to Autumn, an equally impossible fancy. But as in the first episode, the lingering shadow of arranged marriage holds Ning and his love at bay, for Windy’s father has promised her long ago to another lord, though fortunately such impediments prove rather more surmountable when both lovers are corporeal. Along the way, however, Windy is almost transformed into a demon herself when the monster in the temple is finally destroyed, albeit with its still-animated body parts flying in all directions to attack and latch onto the fighters. The girls’ father and his escorting jailers, led by the formidable, decent but rigidly dutiful soldier Hu (Waise Lee), finally pass by the temple, but the clash of arms between the two forces is stalled by the arrival of the official procession escorting the Imperial High Priest (Shun Lau). The High Priest proves to be the source of both the epidemic of demons and the political repression sweeping the land.
Political subtext is introduced during Ning’s early, mistaken imprisonment, learning quickly he has no hope of proving his innocence. Elder Chu (Feng Ku), who’s spent most of his life in jail, claims that every effort he’s made to find safe artistic ground has merely brought him some new variety of official persecution: “I analyse military strategy, they say I’m organising rebellion…I try to write fairy stories, they say I’m promoting superstition!” He’s spent so long in jail that he’s actually dug a hole through the wall and comes and goes when he feels like it, using his cell as a quiet place to work. Ching’s mischievous culmination of the theme comes when the heroes pursue the High Priest to his temple, where they find the entire Imperial court arranged in rigid ceremonial splendour—except they’re all hollow shells, their insides eaten out by the demon, a fake government fronting for monstrous power. Fortunately for Ning, he and Windy find themselves at the Lotus Temple, where Yin has holed up, and they’re able to call him to aid Autumn in a showdown with the High Priest.
Both episodes conclude with epic, utterly bizarre and visually startling leaps into special-effects set-pieces, as the heroes make journeys into the netherworld to do battle with the demons on their own turf, lands of abyssal dark and desolate plains where the demons sit on thrones and lord over dimensions beyond. In the first episode, Old Evil’s body proves to be composed of severed, animate flying heads that try to gnaw on the heroes like piranha, but the tag-team work of the three heroes finally helps defeat the monster. In the second, the High Priest proves to be a colossal juggernaut of a flying centipede, and Autumn and Yin, in a flourish unashamedly pinched by Men in Black (1998), are both swallowed by the beast, forcing them to destroy the beast by detaching the spirits from their bodies by reciting mantras, and then hacking their way out. This risky trick for the two savants of supernatural warfare proves tragic for Autumn, who can’t get back into his body. His spirit is swept away, with a distraught Moon chasing him–a last flourish for the rarefied melancholy that consistently underscores the series’ general joviality.
Ching’s visual style throughout the two films is a constant delight. Like Hark, who would eventually take the approach to excessive levels, Ching toys in the first episode with paring every shot to the bare minimum of time it takes to register, in a fashion that anticipates, but still remains distinct from, Hollywood filmmakers’ embrace of the hyperkinetic because basic rules of focus and editing rhythm are still obeyed. Nonetheless the racing pace of the films is startling and compulsive, whilst Ching’s photography, essayed in an argot of wide-focus lenses used in close-ups to give everything an overlarge, vertiginous immediacy, and zooming camera motions that constantly take on points of view or are used to add physicality to action shots, became deeply influential in a lot of subsequent filmmakers. Perhaps the western filmmaker most inflected with Ching’s example is Peter Jackson, whose photographic style and kinetic approach to fantasy, spectacularly in his early work and more measured in his Tolkien films, bears distinctive traces of Ching’s mighty fantasy-adventure diptych— at a zillion times the cost.
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Director: Ann Hui
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.” Is a simple life a free, uncomplicated life, as the song “Simple Gifts” suggests? Or is a simple life one whose complexities and nuances we are too busy or insensitive to notice? Veteran filmmaker Ann Hui is now approaching the age of the 70-year-old servant Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), the central character in her quietly observant film A Simple Life, and it appears that maturity has caused Hui to reflect on the many small details that make up a long life. Hui’s film offers us the radical idea that careful observation can make even the most simple-sounding life an incredible tale.
Busy Hong Kong filmmaker Roger Leung (Andy Lau) has never known life without Ah Tao. She entered the service of his family at the age of 10. Although her full name is Chung Chun Tao, she is now simply Ah Tao to everyone she meets, a reminder that servants the world over are a little less than full people to their employers and the outside world. Ah Tao has tended generations of Leungs, but most of the family has died or moved to the United States. Now it is only the frequently absent Roger who accepts the magnificent meals Ah Tao cooks without even looking up and walks out the door without a friendly good-bye. The taken-for-granted housekeeper doesn’t seem to mind—her job is her life, and the Leungs the only family she has.
Ah Tao worries about Roger’s health, reminding him when he asks her to cook him ox tongue that he only just recovered from heart surgery and that he must watch his diet. Nonetheless, we watch, tantalized, as Ah Tao tosses herbs and vegetables into a pot of water, places an ox tongue in it, and sets the lid on top for braising until Roger returns home that evening from a short trip. Roger rings the bell to his apartment and bangs on the door, asking Ah Tao to open it because he forgot his keys. The scene cuts to two EMTs moving Ah Tao on a gurney into an ambulance. The elderly lady has suffered a stroke. From this point on, Roger becomes aware of who Ah Tao is and what she means to him, as he attends to her in the nursing home she asks to be moved to and includes her in his life in a way he never imagined he would. He has finally noticed her.
A Simple Life could have turned into a sentimental story, reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, about a sweet old lady and the master who loves her. That certainly is communicated clearly by Lau and the luminous Deannie Yip, and the film is based on real events in the life of Roger Lee, the film’s producer, who certainly would have had a say on the tone of the story. But the realities of growing old and dying take up a great deal of the film. Ah Tao is lucky to have a family devoted to her, particularly Roger, but she never quite forgets her place. When she is too infirm to work, she tells Roger to call his mother in San Francisco and say she’s retiring. Her next instruction is to find her an “old folks home.” She feels the divide between her job and her life, and Roger can’t shame her by offering to hire a private-duty nurse for her to live with them.
The reality of life in a nursing home isn’t glossed either, with Hui shooting with a handheld camera to get as in our face as possible. Ah Tao surveys the elderly men and women lined up in chairs around the periphery of the lobby to catch the sun and some air; when she is escorted to her private room, one of only a few available, she understands why. The room—actually more of a cubicle because its walls don’t reach the ceiling—is small and has a tiny window that barely relieves the darkness and the pervasive odors that go with failing bodies. When Ah Tao has to use the rest room, she stuffs toilet paper up her nose to dampen the smell. We see the distress on her face at the new surroundings that seem designed to remind her of death, but as she has been all her life, she is uncomplaining and sure about her decision.
We recoil in horror at the sight of the home and the people in it, instinctively wanting to avoid facing our own fate, but Hui’s sure hand about making this human warehouse a home and its residents people is really quite miraculous. The nurse administrator seems harsh, but we see her human side when she and Ah Tao share a lonely New Year’s night in the nursing home. We meet one young woman who is talking with her elderly mother; in a surprise to Ah Tao and us, the young woman is living at the home because she needs the kidney dialysis they offer several times a week. When she gets worse, her doctor advises her to go to a nursing home with better equipment; if she could have afforded it—she’s too young for full government disability—she would have gone to such a home in the first place, and we worry about how long her funds will last. We are also aware that her mother may be without someone to care for her, much as the never-married Ah Tao is, when her daughter dies.
One resident, “Uncle” Kin (Paul Chun), is the life of the party, always dancing and singing and arranging games for the other residents. He also always hits Ah Tao and Roger up for money, which they never refuse, that is, until Roger sees him sneaking out with the buxom receptionist (Suet-Ka Fong) to spend it. Roger feels used, but Ah Tao tells him to let Kin have his fun as long as he can—giving to those around her is what Ah Tao’s life was all about. I was quite reminded of my father, who once gave $20 to a beggar with a cock-and-bull story about needing to take his son to the hospital in a taxi; when I told my dad the man was lying, he said, yeah, but he had a good story.
A very telling scene occurs when the Leungs and extended family fly to Hong Kong and introduce their newest family addition to Roger and Ah Tao. Roger and his sister sit in his car and talk about how Ah Tao doted on Roger. The siblings genuinely care for Ah Tao, but Roger’s sister says that taking care of Roger when he was ill really paid off for Ah Tao in her time of need. This was a rather callous statement, I thought, but one that may have been true at the beginning of Ah Tao’s decline. Over time, Roger was able to do what his sister was not—spend time with Ah Tao, learn about his family history through her memories, talk about their respective love lives, give her some pleasure by taking her to the premiere of his new movie, where we get an amusing cameo by Hark Tsui being told by Ah Tao that he shouldn’t smoke. Even the fact that she speaks Cantonese when Hong Kong is welcoming more Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders marks her as a bit of a relic, as well as a dying treasure from a rich past.
Each character, no matter how small their part, is written, played, and shot with care. From the grocery clerks who play a mean trick on Ah Tao at the beginning of the film to the maneuvers Roger and his film partners use to wrest more money out of their stingy producer, this film seems to want to honor the dignity of all human life, from the “good” characters like Ah Tao to the somewhat sleazy, like the nursing home administrator (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) who is friends with Roger. Hui takes her time in chronicling the many small facets that make up a world. A Simple Life is simply wonderful.
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Directors: Ronnie Yu and David Wu
By Roderick Heath
Yusheng Liang, who died in 2009, is credited as one of the writers who modernised the wu xia novel, the imperishably popular Chinese mythological pulp genre. One of his most iconic works, The Bride with White Hair (1958), has been adapted several times for the big and small screens, but never more famously than with the two-part epic made by Ronnie Yu and David Wu, who split directorial duties but shared writing credits on both films. Both directors parlayed their success with this movie into disappointing Hollywood careers, but The Bride with White Hair diptych is one of the most eye-catching and dramatically inventive examples of the evolving modern Hong Kong genre cinema. It was made when the classic wire-fu style defined by directors like King Hu and Tsui Hark had not yet been corrupted by CGI, but it is vividly modern in other respects. The aesthetics of the Hong Kong genre school both recall Hollywood’s all-but-lost enthusiasm for raw storytelling and cinematic action panache, whilst retaining its own peculiarities, and The Bride with White Hair pushed the boundaries of the school. Its relatively unsheathed erotic edge and its modern thematic concerns pick at the surface the generic conceits and traditional assumptions, and present wild variations on its central issue of masculinity and femininity in fatal conflict.
The Bride with White Hair’s unusual structure offers a prologue that depicts a party of Imperial soldiers travelling to a distant, enchanted mountain where they’ve heard grows a rare flower with amazing healing properties that blooms only once every 10 years. They need the flowers to cure the Emperor’s health, but when they reach the peak, they’re astounded to find a man seated in the billowing snow, watching over the flowers. He slaughters them, declaring that there is only one person the flowers are for. This guardian is Zhuo Yihang, whose life story is recounted in flashback.
Zhuo was an orphan adopted into and raised with the values and fighting techniques of the Wu-Tang clan, one of eight syndicated sects that form the Chung Yuan. Zhuo proved to be a problematic student because of his innate individualism and discomfort with a life lived according to strict hierarchies, but he was also clearly the most talented. In spite of the efforts of one of the teachers, Bai Yun (Law Lok-lam), to promote his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam) as a potential chieftain for the Wu-Tang, Zhuo, after clearing himself of charges of assault and battery against some young men from rival clans, is nominated to lead a coalition of their forces against the forces of Ji Wushuang. This enemy gang is named after its leaders, conjoined male and female twins (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who are evil sorcerers, once expelled from China by the Chung Yuan clans. Now the twins have returned at the head of a cult of followers who practice human sacrifice and erotic rituals.
Their chief warrior and strong right fist is the whip-wielding Devil Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin), so dubbed because she was raised from infancy by wolves and retained a devilish relish for battle after being trained in the deadly arts by Ji. But Zhuo, seeing her at war, remembers her when she was still living with the wolves and playing her pipe under the moonlight. He tracks her down after a battle to a ruined city where she bathes in a sacred spring. In spite of her fury at his intransigence, she has to return to her overlord before she can kill him. Such a sequence has echoes through to Western mythology, like the tale of Artemis and Actaeon, with its coded relationship of voyeurism and the inviolable female space. Later, when the Chung Yuan army advances into Wushuang’s territory, Lian and the cultists ambush the coalition encampment, and she and Zhuo square off. Zhuo challenges her to a weaponless fight, but Lian is struck by an arrow shot by Lu-Hua, and Zhuo protectively rushes her away to the ancient city, where he helps her recover and becomes her lover. He gives her the name Lian Nichang, and during his absence, he’s written off as a traitor by the clans. The male Ji Wushuang desperately desires Nichang, and is stoked to heights of jealousy; when she returns to the cult to ask for release so she can live with Zhuo, the male insists she sleep with him first. When she fails to please him, she’s forced to undergo a punishing ritual humiliation.
The Bride with White Hair films share common traits with Hong Kong cinema, from the style of humour and character interaction that seem distinctly more naïve than what we’re used to in Western cinema, to the fluent, utterly confident sense of storytelling that seems at once beautifully simple and irreducibly sophisticated, moving at a pace that forces the viewer to keep up. Both episodes soar to rare heights of stoked emotion and drenched décor effects, but it’s the way their inflated set-pieces revolve around metaphorical versions of everyday travails that really drives them. It’s most marked in Nichang’s singular insistence that Zhuo trust her, a key component of any adult relationship, made here to hinge on an act of mass murder and magical shape-shifting. But likewise, Zhuo’s chafing against the authoritarianism and clannish narrowness of Chung Yuan life evokes any kind of discomfort in imposed social roles.
Yu was most interested in taking a Romeo and Juliet angle on Yusheng’s novel, emphasising its heroes as struggling with the deterministic forces that have created them. Throughout the two films also flows a richly transformative investigation into extreme visions of gender conflict and emotional violence. Nichang, in particular, lives on a balancing point between transcendent epiphany and infernal rage in the first film, linked to the natural world and primal forces, whereas fellow orphan Zhuo is associated with human, hierarchical society and its entrapping concepts. But both are characterised as exceptional rebels who cause terrible destruction because of their wayward identities. In the sequel, Nichang relentlessly pummels a young woman almost to death to save her the lesson never to trust a man. The conjoined male and female villains of the first film, who, with their magic powers, can beat up people without touching them, also embody the story’s twisted take on heterosexual relations, and add immeasurably to the perversity and drama of the action. The his/her arguments between the twins, sister perpetually mocking her brother for his agonised lust for Nichang, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel, builds to the amazingly pathological images of the brother stabbing his own arm in masochistic frustration, the sister screaming and begging him to stop, and later, when he’s trying to have sex with a willfully passionless Nichang, his sister, “lying” on his back mocking him, building to eruptive frustration that causes him to smash Nichang’s head repeatedly against the bed frame. It’s the sort of scene where you wonder why David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven didn’t come up with it first.
Dashes of Spielbergian ambition dot The Bride with White Hair’s visual texture, with the Indian styling of Ji’s infernal cult, massed in a chanting relish of evil, suggesting the influence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as a hint of Bollywood flavouring. But with its colour-drenched frames, dramatically tilted camera angles, and the eerily beautiful, yet lightning-paced images of the warriors bounding through fog-shrouded forests, Yu, like Johnny To’s wild The Heroic Trio from the same year, effectively synthesises Hollywood high style with the traditional effects of wu xia cinema. Yu also employs a headlong rush of narrative clearly learnt from Tsui Hark, and he’s not terribly interested in developing with clarity a political subplot involving General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), an officer Zhuo had known since childhood who sets out to become Emperor, adding to a slightly diffuse quality to the narrative that is the film’s biggest fault. But the blend of fantasy imagery, and a coherent use of that imagery’s protean possibilities for investigating complex aspects of the psyche, help the film earn comparison with the classical mythology it evokes.
The blend of the utterly fantastic and the emotionally overwrought builds to two brilliant sequences. The gauntlet Nichang has to walk in leaving Ji’s cult sees her walking upon hot coals, and shards of jagged glass while being mercilessly beaten by the cultists. She emerges, bloodied and near collapse, but still manages enough pride and power to walk out. But when she returns to the ancient city, she finds Zhuo has left. Fellow members of the Wu-Tang, including Lu-Hua, have tracked him down and convinced him to return to explain himself to the head priest, but on arrival, they find the other Wu-Tang have all been massacred, the head priest’s severed head dangling from the ceiling, and one wounded man reporting that the Wolf Girl attacked them. When Nichang arrives looking for Zhuo, the remnants of the cult attack her, and even Zhuo believes she’s guilty thanks to the dying man’s testimony. Nichang is deeply offended and heartbroken at the distrust, especially after what she’s been through for Zhuo, and when Lu-Hua manages to stab her with a sword, rather than dying, she’s transmogrified into a white-haired demon. She skewers Lu-Hua with a sword, tears off her red wedding gown to reveal a white one, and slaughters the rest of the Wu-Tang in a supernatural fury. The first massacre proves to have been the work of Ji, having used their power to assume Nichang’s form, and she and Zhuo join forces long enough to slice the evil sorcerer in half, allowing the male to release a sigh of relief before dying: “Such a relief to sleep this way!”
Yu’s film concludes on a bravely unresolved note with the haunted Zhuo on his mountaintop vigil, transfixed by his failures, and Nichang having disappeared into the underworld, now a spirit of purified wrath. Wu’s follow-up takes the story well beyond the limits of Yusheng’s novel: it’s 10 years later, and Zhou continues his vigil as the time of the flower’s blooming comes near. The Wu-Tang is struggling to rebuild after the massacre, but Nichang has entirely embraced her dark side and is relentlessly killing off all the sects of the Chung Yuan. The Wu-Tang tradition has come down to its last heir, Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan), who’s marrying Yu Qin or “Lyre” (Joey Mann), daughter of another clan, taking the risk of incurring Nichang’s wrathful efforts to destroy all marriages within the clan. The image of the severed Ji twins presages a theme developed here of gender war, as Nichang has become a declared misanthropist, saving wronged and dishonoured women and bringing them into her cult, including her chief henchwoman and crypto-lesbian lover Chen Yuanyuan (Ruth Winona Tao), inculcating them with powers to become ruthless killers whilst giving them each a taste of revenge on their specific male abusers. On Kit and Lyre’s wedding night, Nichang breaks into the temple and savagely beats the couple, but when one of Feng’s friends manages to help him escape, Nichang spirits Ling to her hidden fortress and brainwashes her into becoming a psychotic assassin of men. Feng is nursed back to health by tomboy Wu-Tang adherent Moon (Christy Chung), who’s in love with him and sad that he married Ling, but sets out with him and a band of other young Chung Yuan warriors to seek out and storm Nichang’s fortress.
Wu’s half of the story presents several mirroring images of both the first film’s characters and their travails: where Zhuo and Nichang’s schism was something they tried to resolve in spite of their disparate worlds, Kit and Ling’s split is artificially imposed. The original’s core love triangle is reconfigured into a proliferation of grazing, inchoate relationships. Moon pines for Kit and is admired in turn by his determined but less good-looking fellow warrior Liu Hang (Richard Suen), who proves nonetheless a determined and able helpmate. Moon, with her mannish affectations—she’s seen constantly chewing on a cigarette—but thoroughly heterosexual ambitions stand in contrast to the cult Nichang runs with her collective of female assassins and their hideout’s air of lush sensuality. The clan warriors are placed under the command of the aged “Granny” of the Au Mei clan (Lily Chung), whose own mane of white hair sees her momentarily mistaken for the witch when she comes to take command. Moon fires off arrows at her, but she’s so good, she catches the arrows between her teeth. She’s also a disarmingly unaffected, calm, and wise person who prefers acting in defence and delegates to Kit when the time to attack arrives. Nichang in her transmogrified witch state can throw out her long white hair in tentacle-like coils that pierce the skin and drip poison. Moon is riddled with strands of the hair, and she’s left on death’s door, forbidden from attempting any kung fu; but she still leaps into the fray to save her friends with tragic results.
A lot of credit for the heft of the films is owed to its terrific pairing of Cheung and Lin, two of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema (though Cheung’s contribution to the second film is disappointingly brief), and especially Lin, who commands the films like an empress. They both considerably overshadow the younger actors in the sequel. There’s a touch of tribute to John Carpenter as the languorous, suggestive sequences of Lyre being ritually subsumed into the cult by Chen Yuanyuan echo the similar scenes of heroines in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), whilst the scene in which Kit dances before his wedding, blindfolded and playing a lyre given as a wedding present, has a quality similar to the rapturous little touches with which Zhang Yimou would decorate his wu xia films. After one fight scene, Wu cuts to observe the glittering drops of a slain man’s blood drip from the fronds of a silvery bush, a poetic flourish of a kind that dots both films, and it’s worth noting the intensity of the design element to the films, with the great costume design by Emi Wada and the set decoration, especially in the recurring contrast between the livid whiteness of Nichang and setting rendered either in red, the same as the red blood that spits out of so many bodies, or rich nocturnal blue. Wu, a long-time editor who also served in that capacity on the first episode, offers direction slightly more prosaic than Yu’s, and the initial Seven Samurai-like story set-up more familiar, failing to ruffle the settled rhythms and naïve humour of the genre as much.
But the story arc again echoes with fidelity a familiar mythic tale, and proceeds with wildly eccentric energy, building to even more floridly grandiose climaxes. When the Chung Yuan war party is all but wiped out infiltrating Nichang’s citadel, Kit and Liu are advised by Granny to seek out Zhuo Yuhang, as she’s one of the few who knows where’s he’s been hiding all these years. Wu obfuscates whether they find him in the chilly extremes of the sacred mountain, cutting from them stumbling away in a blizzard with Zhou watching them from his pinnacle, to the determined young duo deciding to attack the fortress again with planted explosives. It’s in the last few minutes that Wu’s installment goes for broke as his heroes give battle, Lei dying in combat with one of female cultists, dynamiting both himself and her after giving her a kiss to show her what a “real man” is like, and Zhuo turning up in time to forestall Nichang from killing Kit and Lyre. The confrontation of the two former lovers, long delayed, pays off in the delirious image of Zhuo, once again dropping his arms before Nichang, being skewered by her long tendrils of hair, proffering the magical flowers that get burnt to a crisp by a falling cinder. Zhuo’s proof of his still-smouldering ardour and contrition brings Nichang back from a homicidal rage, only to gain a sword in the back from the jealous Chen Yuanyuan, and all three die as the fortress falls flaming about their ears. It’s the sort of giddy, Wagnerian climax that one so often expects from fantasy-action tales, but so rarely gets.
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Director: Johnny To
By Roderick Heath
Johnny To has emerged in the past few years as a master of Hong Kong genre cinema, filling the void left by the departure and disgrace of John Woo and other industry notables in Hollywood adventures. To and Woo share characteristics, both concentrating on bristling macho dramatics, each analysing fundamental social, business, and personal bonds through the charged metaphors of the gangster film, and both channelling the influence of foreign masters like Ford, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Leone into their localised aesthetic. They’re very different in other respects, however: where Woo is usually an operatic executor of movies that are fundamentally about movies, reverent of the given structures and precepts of the genre film, To is much more of an ironist, willing to play games with his audience’s expectations in laying out standard elements and then executing simple, but brilliantly effective twists. To’s as strong a stylist as any in modern cinema, but a purposeful, efficient one, saving pyrotechnics for the moment of maximum impact, and with his dancing camerawork, lightning editing, and keen mise-en-scène, he barely wastes a frame. Election proved something of a breakthrough for him in terms of overseas attention, and it’s not hard to see why.
The story is fairly simple, but To keeps his pieces moving on the board so fast it’s a challenge to stay focused. The Wo Sing triad, one of the most notable—but far from only—illegal organisations in Hong Kong is having an election for its chairman, who serves for two-year spells. The tradition of the election is over a hundred years old, and the codes that bind the triad members together go back even further, to the days of resistance against the Manchus and the rebellions of the Shaolin monks. The two candidates to replace outgoing boss Whistle (Chung Wang) are Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), two temperamentally disparate kingpins. Lok is calm, disdainful of showy expressions of power, the kind of guy who walks around his neighbourhood and converses with shopkeepers without a weapon or bodyguards, a detail which speaks of his certainty of power. He keeps a fine apartment with his son Denny (Jonathan Lee). Big D is far less restrained: married to a potent kingmaker wife (Maggie Shiu), he’s a man who smiles and cajoles with excessive pleasantness and explodes in childish tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. And he doesn’t, when, in spite of his carefully administered bribes to some of the “uncles” who form the decisive circle of triad chiefs, Lok wins the election as the most honourable and respectable of the choices.
Big D decides to dispute the election, and kidnaps two of the uncles he blames for his loss, cranky old Long Gun (Yuen-Yin Yu) and dissolute Sam (Robert Hung), whom he’d bribed but who failed to vote for him because there wasn’t enough money to go around. He nails them inside wooden crates, and rolls them repeatedly down a mountainside until they’re bloodied, dazed messes. Calling up Whistle, he threatens their lives unless Whistle helps him in challenging the triad’s guardian of tradition, Teng Wai (Wong Tin Lam); Whistle responds by having a subordinate hide the carved dragon-motif baton that is the symbol of authority in the Wo Sing in mainland China. Big D senses he might still stake a claim to the governorship if he can get hold of the baton by proving that he has the muscle and guts to snatch the baton to those who would still deny his authority.
Getting wind of an impending clash between the quickly polarising sides, the police, commanded by stoic Chief Superintendent Hui (David Chiang), drag in all the uncles, including Lok and Big D, who, still raging at his fellow uncles who he thinks betrayed him, begins kicking Whistle in front of reporters whilst waiting to be taken into the police station. Whistle flees the violence, but is run over by a car and critically injured. The cops, desperate not to see a gang war start, only want to force the uncles to find a way to sort out their problems. But events threaten to spiral out of everyone’s control as rival bands of men loyal to Big D and the other uncles try to fetch the baton from its hiding place in Guangzhou, and an embittered Whistle tries to blab from his hospital bed.
To’s quick eye takes in a raft of small details that fill out the universe of the triad bosses with alternatively disarming and dismaying effect. Most of these gangsters aren’t actually very tough or especially good at their jobs—they’re mostly middle-age men whose days of roughneck street warfare and standover work are behind them. Amongst the younger ones, who include young punks with something to prove, and genuinely fierce warriors in need of a watchful eye, the slickest is the preternaturally cool Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), who distributes bribes and collects debts whilst also attending seminars in finance. Small and large rituals—Teng Wai making tea for the uncles to seal their election decision; a later, full-on, religious-flavoured, blood-brother ceremony—define and seal their society. The power of ritual and tradition is simultaneously endangered, illusory, and still binding in subtle and supple ways. The governorship of the triad is established by totems and oaths, and but these are only emblems of real things, and the competition to command the emblems will finally express the reality of those symbols. As the film plays out, the meanings of those symbols become thoroughly apparent.
Election also hints at broader meanings through its title: the election, the illusion of democracy, is a sanctified ritual in the triad. But it’s only possible because of the mutual consent of powerful men, and To encompasses the history of Hong Kong and the relationship of Chinese society to centuries of hegemonic rulers both foreign and domestic. Simultaneously, what adherence to a creed means is taken seriously all the way through, even though the drama is driven by upstart Big D’s refusal to accept the rules, a breach of the creed. He threatens that if he doesn’t get his way, he will break away and form his own triad, a potent threat indeed as no one wants a war. The police know they can’t stamp out the triads, and are happy to act as something like referees in this game to reduce collateral damage; their attempts to corral the uncles before the situation combusts prove partly successful. In a moment that’s both ribald and telling, Long Gun, whilst berating Sam and Big D for failing to give a big enough bribe, orders a nubile young prostitute to jump up and down for him: those old farts are happy as long as their pockets are stuffed, their dicks are wet, and the world’s jumping to their regulated beat.
In the film’s sustained, exhilarating central movement, the battling factions and the police try to beat each other in ferrying the baton out of China, leading to the teeth-gnashing moment between two intermediate members. Kun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), functionary for a boss who’s signed on with Big D because he’ll sell their drugs at a higher rate, beats Lok loyalist Big Head (Suet Lam) with a log to get him to give up the baton, whilst Big Head recites the words of their triad oath, explicating the bizarre bond of corporeal grit and spiritual adherence that keeps the Triad bound together. But then Kun gets a call from his boss, telling him the plan’s changed: he’s now to make sure that the baton comes home to Lok, and he has to apologise to the bloodied, battered Big Head before immediately leaving with the baton, knocking over a policeman in his relentless drive back to Hong Kong. He then passes the baton on to motorcycle-riding, hard-as-nails kung-fu warrior Jet (Nick Cheung), who was first glimpsed in the film taking offence to Big D’s patronising jokes, which caused him to crush up and eat a ceramic spoon as a fuck-you to the wannabe overlord; we know then he’d rather die than let Big D get the baton. With Jimmy Lee, who manages to intercept him, they beat off a mob of his men, Jimmy stuffing one heavy into a barrel and stomping on the lid until he’s trapped like a Looney Tunes character and Jet finishing up with a machete jutting from his shoulder. But the pair’s grit sees them victorious and Lok gains the baton. It’s the most generically satisfying part of the film as a blindingly executed piece of action.
Terrific little details flitter by at high speed, like the “you’re full of shit!” look Jimmy wears in listening to Uncle Sam’s swearing he’s not going to gamble any more, or Teng recalling how the baton once had to be sprayed down with insecticide after the last election because the former holder was such a slob. There are points in Election where even fierce attention won’t really reward a first-time viewer. Many of the bosses and their henchmen are swiftly introduced and barely distinguishable, though that’s probably intentional. Lok’s supine calm and Big D’s hot-headed smarm are, on the other hand, very carefully contrasted to carefully manipulate initial impressions. Lok, with his calm demeanour and general reputation for honour and chivalry within the triad, seems by far the better man, yet one senses that Lok’s security in his sense of power gives him a great capacity for ruthlessness. This is proven when, to make sure Whistle doesn’t blab to the cops, he has Whistle’s son run down by a truck and threatens that his daughter will be next, causing Whistle to commit suicide by pulling out his own life support. Once the baton’s in Lok’s hands, he reaches out to Big D, bringing him into his plan to expand the Wo Sing’s turf by taking over another triad’s territory: Big D pretends then to make an alliance with that triad’s boss, Brother Dinosaur (Bo Yuen), only to team with Lok to kill him, Big D relishing stabbing and kicking the dying man. All suddenly seems right in the Wo Sing world again.
But To saves his most brutal and amazing flourish for the very end: when Lok, Denny, and Mr. and Mrs. Big D share a bucolic afternoon fishing, Big D, pleased by how things are going, suggests that he and Lok share the Wo Sing governorship as some other triad bosses have done. Lok says they’ll have to talk it over with the fellow bosses, and then, when Denny and Mrs. D are momentarily absent, he picks up a huge rock and bashes Big D’s head in with it. Mrs. D sees him and tries to run away, but Lok catches her, throttles her, and buries her with her husband in an unmarked grave, before calmly driving home with his son, who witnessed his violence, in glazed, silent trauma, into a blood-red sunset.
The ending is both a ruthlessly concise trash job on the veneer of gangland civility that brings to mind the climax of Scorsese’s Casino (1995)—indeed, the thought of Scorsese having remade this film rather than the far less inspired Infernal Affairs is a tantalising one—with its galvanising, surprisingly prolonged, and truthful violence, but it’s also a coldly logical culmination of all that has proceeded. Lok’s unremitting execution of his rival and his problematic wife is both power politics defined, and obedience to the creed of the triad. Big D has violated the society’s laws and defied the judgement of the uncles, and he pays the price for that violation in the same way that Big Head defended the laws: at the cost of having his body pummelled, but this time unto death. This hardly leavens the final disturbing vision of Lam Lok as a brutal psychopath, his son’s haunted look saying all that’s necessary about life in this world even as they slip back into their social roles. The savage excellence of this coda elevates Election far above the pack. l
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Director: Tsui Hark
By Roderick Heath
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain made the reputation of director Tsui Hark, and in so doing, redefined the wu xia genre, the staple of Hong Kong cinema. Hark had shortly before gotten in trouble with the governing authorities with his politically minded Violent Encounters of the First Kind (1980), which was heavily cut by censors and flopped at the box office. Determined to conjure a blockbuster, Hark imported Hollywood technicians to beef up Zu’s special effects and production values. His efforts paid off: Zu made $15 million, a colossal sum for a Hong Kong film of the time, and became the kind of movie that still makes most Western efforts to do fantasy-adventure look limp, dull-witted, and wholly uncool. Watching Zu could be daunting to anyone without a feel for the genre and this specific style of filmmaking. Somewhat akin to watching the whole The Lord of the Rings trilogy compressed into a 90-minute film, Zu charges ahead at a breakneck pace and doesn’t particularly care whether you keep up. It’s also a hard film to approach because there are several extant versions, often with whole new plots inserted. So, I’ll just have to take it as I saw it.
The explanatory opening assures us that the title mountain, Zu, is the subject of many legends from Chinese mythology. And now here’s one we made up. In an era in which the nations of Wu are battling for supremacy, Ti Ming Chi (Yuen Biao), a messenger for the Blue Wu, falls in with a chubby warrior (Samo Hung) from the Red faction. They overcome their mutual antipathy when both are attacked by a third faction, and each disillusioned with their cause, end up trying to keep each other alive during a free-for-all-battle. Cornered on a cliff, Chi falls off, and Fatso is captured. And that’s just the first five minutes.
Unharmed in his fall, Chi wanders the countryside until he find himself in a forbidding realm of perpetual darkness, and is assailed by red-eyed, reanimated corpses. He is saved by the timely intervention of a warrior monk, Ting Yin (Adam Cheng). Yin has been called to aid a great old monk, Chang Mei, in battling an evil sect that has been sacrificing children to awaken the Blood Demon, a terrifying flying sheet with a sword in its mouth and cymbals in its hands. Also called in by Chang Mei are two other monks, Abbott Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau) and his student Yi Chen (Hoi Mang), and the trio, with Chi mostly trying to avoid being killed, do battle with the evil sect and vanquish their creepy head priest (Hark-on Fung).
Too late! The Blood Demon, being a sheet, doesn’t like being awakened, and he assaults our heroes, infecting Hsiao Yu with a poison that will transform him into the Demon’s avatar. Chang Mei (Hung again) arrives and manages to temporarily entrap the Demon with his incredible sticky eyebrow power, and a magic, star-powered mirror that can hold the beast for 43 days, until the alignment of the stars change. The heroes are given a mission: first, they must go to the Ice Countess (Brigitte Lin), who is priestess of a hillside fortress temple, to have Hsiao Yu cured, and then locate the cave of Lei Yikkei “The Wonder Girl,” a great mystic who is the current keeper of the twin swords of Sky and Earth, the only weapons that can truly defeat the Demon.
Hark’s a director who puts pace and vivid action ahead of story coherence – a tendency that had reached an apogee with the unwatchable Time and Tide (2000). Zu itself treads the edges of bedazzling incomprehensibility, but miraculously keeps it footing thanks to a solid sense of physical context. Hark’s rapid editing is as much about masking the ropy special effects (in a subgenre that’s often referred to by the less poetic name “wire fu”) in an era long before the balletic CGI of the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, as it is to keep things rocking. He imbues the proceedings with a lysergic intensity, and his direction is as close to a perpetual motion machine as any in cinema. Hark, like a lot of other Hong Kong directors of the era, were taking up the challenge thrown down by Hollywood filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas in supercharging the momentum and imagery of fantasy cinema, and riposted with their own manic energy. That Zu doesn’t take itself very seriously and is filled with self-satirising humour are big plusses. The plot and the approach to it is summed up when a confused Chi asks who the members of the sect are; Yi Chen replies sarcastically, “They’re the bad guys. We’re the good guys. Get it?” Later, when Chi asks Chang Mei if he’s a good guy, Chang testily snaps, “Of course I’m a good guy! Do bad guys wear white?”
When they reach the Countess’ temple, they find the warrior-priestesses there a mob of prickly, crypto-lesbian separatists who detest any male presence, provoking Yi Chen into decrying “It’s women like you made me become a monk!” The Countess won’t heal anyone if she doesn’t come out for her daily consultation before a sacred blue flame, relit each day, burns out. She gets so angry when Ting Yin saves her from fainting whilst healing, that she fights Ting Yin, duelling him whilst they each fly on carved elephants. They’re hot for each other, of course. But Ting Yin, in saving her again from a fall, accidentally ingests the poison she’s taken from Hsiao Yu, and he is soon transformed into the Demon’s avatar, forcing the Countess to try to hold him in by freezing the entire castle, herself, her fellow priestesses, and the visitors in a great block of ice. Only Chi, Yi, and Mu Sang (Moon Lee), one of the younger, more hot-headed priestesses, escape, and when the ice fails to keep the Demon Ting Yin trapped, they have to locate the cave where Lei Yikkei resides.
Hark uses that pretext to take the film any crazy place he damn well pleases. John Carpenter acknowledges Zu as a primary inspiration on his Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and the influence isn’t too hard to spot in the style of action, his employment of colour and set-décor effects, and the self-mocking humour. Zu has a joie de vivre and a loopy passion that barely, if ever, finds its way into Hollywood attempts to do the same thing. Most intriguing and delightful about the film is its cheekiness, a constant flow of invention and humour that takes digs at clichés of genre, gender, and generations. The narrative culmination involves the joining of Ti Ming Chi, Yi Chen, and Lei Yikkei into an attuned gestalt mind to battle the Demon, the complete annihilation of gender, generational, and psychic barriers necessary in completing a symbolic union of earth and sky that’s asexual. “Are we still men?” the two lads ask in panic after Lei Yikkei transforms them into super-warriors in cut-off blouses.
They are, yes, but it’s fascinating that here a level of ambiguity in identity, sexuality, and everything else has to be reached to achieve a heroic end. Compare it to, say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2003), where the ultimate in evil, Satan, is defined by sexual ambiguity. Asian cinema’s long had a notably larger and more interesting roll-call of female heroes. Yu’s narrative is about tension, unity, and division as it manifests in all situations and concepts: the combat of good and evil, men and women, nation-states, and schools of philosophy and religion. The younger heroes learn the hard way that they, not their self-involved, fractious elders, have to take up the baton and effect real change. Ti Ming Chi is a male virgin, and his purity is crucial to his triumph; the Buddhist ideal of annihilation of differentiation of form has to win the day. This doesn’t stop Chi, Yi, and Mu Sang flying off at the end presumably for some variety of magical threesome.
Zu is a glorious romp that tries a bit too hard, but better trying too hard than not trying at all. It doesn’t have quite the heady mix of erotic poeticism and high adventure of Ching Siu-Tung’s great A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), works probably influenced by Hark’s film; the tragic romance between the Countess and Ying Tin doesn’t get much time to register in Hark’s, unlike the crucial one in Ching’s — but it is wilder and more spectacular. The visuals are appropriately delirious, conjuring amazing sequences like when the young trio encounters Heaven’s Blade (Norman Chu), who has chained himself on guard at the gate of hell and does battle with the Demon Ting Yin, the heroes desperately dangling from the shattered chains. And there’s the breathless finale in which the Countess sacrifices herself to destroy the Demon Ting Yin, Mu Sang tries to unite the human armies, and the united Chi and Yi destroy the Blood Demon. It’s also worth noting the veritable who’s who of stars of the era: Lin, nominated for Best Actress at that year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is strikingly charismatic; 17-year old Moon, in her first film, stakes her claim to being the star she was for years after; and the men are all slick and amusing physical presences.
Great fun. l