Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 09/03/2004. A follow-up season, Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film Part II (or 'Marital Arts', as it said on the site until someone noticed), will be showing at BFI Southbank in London throughout April 2007.
So. National Film Theatre. You think your kung fu season's pretty good. But still. You're going to be reviewed today. Ah ha ha ha. Ah ha ha ha ha ha. (To be honest, that doesn't really make sense unless you download this 6.5Mb Acrobat file and read the footnotes on page 5.)
Scenes from True Romance revisited:
"You're taking me to see a kung fu movie?"
"Er... eight kung fu movies. And one of them's silent."
Still, The Belated Birthday Girl was up for it, which makes her My Own Private Alabama, or something. To be honest, both of us are well known for our fondness for the genre. So when the National Film Theatre announced a season entitled Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film, naturally we jumped at the rare chance to catch some classics on the big screen. We didn't see all seventeen movies in the month-long season - sorry but, you know, we have lives - but the eight we did see should count as a representative sample.
Our first film was The Story Of Wong Fei-Hung (Part 1), a 1949 production. Some of you may know Jet Li's Once Upon A Time In China series, in which he plays the same character: to put things into perspective, the first OUATIC was the 100th Wong Fei-Hung movie... and this was the first. Based on a legendary real-life kung-fu master and doctor (meaning he beat the crap out of bad guys but made them better afterwards), Wong has always been a popular character in Hong Kong cinema, with a theme tune as permanently associated with him as the William Tell Overture is with The Lone Ranger, no matter who plays him.
Sadly, the tune hadn't been established at the time of this first film. In fact, the use of music is erratic throughout: bits of Western-sounding film scores are thrown randomly over scenes (and cut dead in mid-flight to make room for dialogue), while the film stops twice for musical numbers so gratuitous they could almost be Bollywood. Having said that, Kwan Tak-Hing makes a charismatic lead, and establishes the character traits that were still in evidence for the Jet Li version: slightly stubborn, only resorting to violence when absolutely necessary, and reduced to a stammering idiot in the presence of women.
But technically, the whole film is rough as hell, leading me to suspect that the Chinese film industry in the 40s was at the level of Hollywood in the 20s. I was subsequently proved wrong by the 1929 silent Red Heroine, which more or less wiped the floor with the later movie. This one was episode six of a series of 13, but appears to be reasonably self-contained: a young woman suffers at the hands of an invading army, is rescued by the mysterious Taoist known only as White Monkey, and trains with him to get her revenge. It sounds like a standard plot, and it is, but it's more about the melodrama than the martial arts: the girl spends nearly an hour offscreen being trained, only coming back to the film at the much-delayed climax as the Red Heroine of the title, to rescue her neighbours from a combined wedding and execution.
The action scenes are brief but fun, with the sort of energy that Peking Opera can have at its best. (The equivalent scenes in Wong Fei-Hung were possibly more authentic - more on that later - but there's an awful lot of people being hit and then falling gently to the ground two seconds later.) And it's delightful to see that even in a silent film such as this one, the bilingual intertitle cards are just as sloppily translated as Hong Kong movie subtitles would be some seventy years later. "You kill my father and feel me. You are bad man."
Enough of the historical interest and on to the classics. Dragon Inn is a hugely influential piece of work. It's the film where director King Hu established his style just before making A Touch Of Zen, the movie that finally convinced the West that martial arts cinema could have artistic merit. It was remade by Tsui Hark in 1992 as New Dragon Gate Inn, a remake that's sadly much easier to track down than the original. And just last year, Tsai Ming-Liang based a film around it (Goodbye Dragon Inn, which follows the inhabitants of a collapsing cinema on its last night as the film plays).
It made me realise that I've never seen A Touch Of Zen on the big screen, only on TV. And I'd like to remedy that some time, because if it rocks half as much in a cinema as Dragon Inn does, that's a fantastic night out right there. It's obvious now that this is where Tsui Hark swiped all his best directorial flourishes from - the camera whizzing around during dialogue scenes and staying comparatively calm for the action: the beautifully posed tableaux that come out of nowhere: the sly use of humour to ridicule the villains. The only false note comes from the almost invincible eunuch swordsman, who can only go for a few minutes before his asthma kicks in (represented by wobbly camera and psychedelic echoplexed guitar noodling). But in compensation, there's the rare chance to see a high-ranking eunuch (a role normally treated with respect and deference) having the piss taken out of him for having no balls. "Your skill is most impressive," says the hero to him at one point. "You must have practised long and hard. Probably because you didn't have any distractions, since you were castrated as a small boy. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha."
Goodbye Dragon Inn plays on the romance of these old movies, as does, of course, Kill Bill: Tarantino's decision to put the evocative Shaw Brothers fanfare and logo at the start pays tribute to that. For most people, kung fu movies are Shaw Brothers movies, and one of the major pleasures of this season was the presence of eight or nine beautifully restored prints of their all-time classics. Such as One-Armed Swordsman, directed by Chang Cheh: a director I've never really been able to take entirely seriously since Stanley Kwan's mid-90's documentary Yang + Yin about gender issues in Chinese cinema. In it, Chang flat out denied that there was any homoerotic subtext in his movies: a statement sadly undercut by a clip from one of his films, in which a semi-naked and oiled warrior was having a huge stake rammed up his arse.
The trouble is, once you've had this sort of thing pointed out to you, you can't help but notice the emphasis on naked male bodies and physical torture in all of Chang Cheh's films. Take this one, in which regular star Jimmy Wang Yu is studying at a martial arts academy, where he's looked down on by the other students and the sifu's daughter in particular. When he spurns her advances and then beats her in an unarmed fight, she gets all huffy and hacks his arm off with a sword. But after lengthy training, he learns to defeat his enemies literally single-handed, using the short sword he inherited from his late father. It's hard to imagine that all of this phallic symbolism is accidental, though I'd draw the line at one analysis I've read which focusses on the main weapon used by the bad guys - a staff that clamps the opponent's sword in metal jaws - and insists it's symbolic of the vagina dentata.
The other Chang Cheh film we caught in the season was Blood Brothers. I've had its trailer on tape for several years now, and like most of the HK trailers of that period it's covered in huge writing across the screen, telling you how great the film is. (Why don't they do that any more?) It includes the splendid boast "FOUR GREAT PERFORMERS! THREE GREAT MARTIAL CHARACTERS!" - in case the maths confuses you, the other character's a woman, which at least pushes the sexual subtext into more conventional territory. Two brothers, Chang (David Cheung) and Huang (Kuan Tai Chen), eke out a living as small time bandits, sharing a home with Kuan's wife Mi Lan (Li Ching). A chance meeting with the ambitious Ma Hsin (Ti Lung) leads them to raise their game, and soon they're a full-blown gang with Ma as the leader. But his ambitions go way beyond that, encompassing a career in the army and his own desires for Mi Lan. Inevitably, it all ends in tears, not to mention other bodily fluids.
This isn't a particularly complicated story - that trailer manages to give it all away in four lines of large-print screaming. And even if you missed it, the key event of the climax is literally announced in the opening line of the film, and everything else is told in a courtroom flashback. So it's all about the fights, the style, and the crushing inevitability of fate. And as a result, Cheh manages to come up with a film that's darker and more substantial than his normal work. In fact, it almost has the feel of a spaghetti western at times, with the use of extreme closeups, melodramatic music and (banal, but true) scenes on horseback.
The original trailers for these films also show you how they were marketed to the domestic audience: and the key selling point appears to be authenticity. Not the entertaining story or the exciting action, but how realistically the martial arts were depicted. There's always been a split in martial arts fandom between people who want the fights to look genuine, and people who want the fights to be entertaining, no matter how many wire rigs and hidden trampolines it takes. But director Liu Chia-Liang has straddled that divide splendidly for a couple of decades, always mixing hard-looking action with full-throttle entertainment. Which is why The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin played to two full houses in the NFT's biggest screen, with people beating each other up with three-section staffs for returns.
36th Chamber, made in 1977, has a classical three-act structure. Act One: our hero (Gordon Liu) sees his friends and family suffer at the hands of invading Tartars. Act Two: he trains for several years with Shaolin monks to learn the art of kung fu. (Although as The Belated Birthday Girl spotted, these days the water obstacles and balancing on high walls that Liu endures look less like intensive physical training and more like a slightly sadistic version of Takeshi's Castle.) Act Three: he returns to his village and opens up a catering-size tin of whoop-ass. A fairly well-worn plot (see Red Heroine above), and Liu Chia-Liang's epileptic use of the zoom lens becomes a bit wearing after a while. But that doesn't stop 36th Chamber from leaving an idiot grin on your face for its entire running time. You can spot all the tricks that Chinese movie-makers have been using for ages - notably the wrinkle that Shaolin monks hate violence and refuse to interact with the outside world, so you're taunted for ages with the possibility that nobody will ever fight anyone in this film - but the tricks still work, and that's the important thing.
The formula worked so well that the Lius collaborated on a sequel three years later, Return To The 36th Chamber. Well, sort of a sequel. In fact, it joins a small band of franchises - The Evil Dead and Yojimbo/Sanjuro are the main ones that spring to mind - where the second film basically reworks the plot of the first one, but as a comedy. In this one Liu is a conman who impersonates a Shaolin monk to get cash. When the workers at a dye factory are intimidated by their new Manchu bosses, he tries to use his bullshit skills to help them, only to end up sorely beaten for his pains. Realising he needs to do something, he sneaks into a Shaolin temple to try and learn some proper kung fu. The monks quickly suss him out, and give him a whole pile of demeaning domestic tasks rather than teaching him what he wants to know. He's never explicitly told to 'wax on, wax off', but fans of The Karate Kid may see where this is heading.
Return is a full-on Cantonese comedy, with all the negative implications of that - a farty 'comic' score, lots of gurning and slapstick, a sequence where we get to hear a Shaolin monk having an attack of the shits - but at the same time, when the action kicks off, it doesn't hold back. Liu Chia-Liang manages to handle the switchback changes in tone really well, certainly better than most HK directors who've tried the same mix since. The finale is an astonishing scrap with improvised props, which obviously served as the blueprint for most of Jackie Chan's work in the eighties. And for a genre that's not particularly known for its verbal wit, there's one totally cherishable bit of dialogue: when Liu is asked what he did during his three years in a Shaolin temple, he eventually breaks down and wails, "I did the scaffolding..."
To finish off the season, John Woo's Last Hurrah For Chivalry: made in 1979 when he was a jobbing hack for hire, before his glory years as an A list director in Hong Kong and Hollywood, and well before his current decline into, um, a jobbing hack for hire. Woo always said his gangster melodramas were just updates of the old swordplay and chivalry pics, and this film eventually proves his point. It's the tale of a nobleman who has his villa stolen and family killed by a bad guy. He goes off in search of blades-for-hire who can help him get revenge, and finds two: Green (Damian Lau Chung Yun), the womanising drunk, and Chang (Wai Pak), the warrior with a strong moral code and a desire to defend the oppressed. He initially decides Chang isn't up to the job: "he's a good swordsman, but far too sentimental." Idiot! This is a John Woo film: if a warrior is far too sentimental, that means he's the lead.
The parallels between this film and Woo's later work are there for all to see. The friendship between the two leads is as intense as any other male pairing in his subsequent films (except for an ill-advised sequence when they run through a whorehouse garden in slow-motion, which is the gayest thing in the world). His talent for staging an action scene is still developing at this point, but his dynamic camera moves and crystal-clear blocking are already there: and those action scenes are a satisfying length, with plenty of variation and invention. The climax even plays out in a room full of candles, a trick that's become item number one in the How To Parody John Woo Fakebook. Except it turns out that this isn't the climax. And the splendidly dark final couple of reels show that the whole thing's been about Woo's favourite theme: what it means to be a hero, particularly in a world that's starting to lose its respect for them.
A fine season, all things considered. I can't really recommend you catch it, because it's finished now at the NFT, and I don't think there are any plans to take it nationwide. (UCLA, who originally programmed the season, toured it all over the US in 2003. Why can't we do that?) But at least I've got a lovely poster out of it: Chris Ward's montage of characters from some of the key movies. It's now taken up pride of place over my bed, replacing the poster of PJ Harvey in her pants that's been there for nearly a decade. And that's not a decision I've taken lightly. Being a monkey, and all.
The British Film Institute organised the Heroic Grace season, and have a microsite [dead link] in place to tell you all about it. It includes an introduction [dead link] from the inevitable Tony Rayns, and brief summaries of the films on show.
The UCLA Film And Television Archive originally programmed the Heroic Grace season, and took it on tour round the US for a year before it came to the UK. Their site includes a terrific programme guide - a hefty 6.5Mb PDF file, but well worth the download.
Shaw Studios doesn't seem to have an official site, but this fan site has a lot of useful info about the films and stars.
DDD House is one of the best places on the web to order these films on DVD, now that you've missed the season. There's a whole page dedicated to the 2003 re-releases of the Shaw Brothers back catalogue, featuring the digital remasters that looked so impressive on the big screen. Check region codes before you buy: most Hong Kong discs are region-free, but some (the Shaws in particular) are R3 encoded.
Takeshi's Castle probably needs including here for anyone who didn't get the reference.