We've been here before, of course. The first Heroic Grace season started out as a collection of Hong Kong martial arts films presented at UCLA: it then went on a tour of the US and Europe, pausing for a month-long run at London's own National Film Theatre. The follow-up season has taken a similar route, premiering at UCLA in Autumn 2005 before eventually making it over to the newly renamed BFI Southbank in April 2007. The focus is a little tighter this time round, restricted (with one exception) to films from the 70s and 80s, rather than the wider historical range of the first season.
But the basic framework is still the same: mainly classics from the archives of the Shaw Brothers studio, with works from a few other sources thrown in for added flavour. Of the seventeen films presented in the London run, we only managed to catch ten: sorry about that, but we were travelling across Europe for half of April, you know. Anyway, you'll just have to make do with what you get below.
Any Shaw-based season has, by necessity, to centre around works by the studio's two best-known directors, and Heroic Grace 2 - like its predecessor - is no exception. On the one hand, there's Chang Cheh, the acknowledged master of serious (verging on po-faced) martial arts and homoerotic posturing. And on the other hand, there's Lau Kar-Leung (aka Liu Chia-Liang). The trailer for one of the Lau films we missed in the season, My Young Auntie, promises 'serious kung fu, light gags', which is as perfect a statement of his approach as you'll find. (Plenty more trailers to come in this piece, so be prepared for some heavy YouTube action in the links.)
The title of Lau's Dirty Ho has picked up some uncomfortable overtones since its 1979 release (but that still doesn't excuse the pornographic relish with which it was announced over the BFI Southbank PA). It's not about prostitution at all - at least not after the early scenes, when two gamblers attempt to lure naughty women to them with increasing offers of loot. One of them is the eponymous Ho (Wong Yu), a common thief: the other is Wang (Gordon Liu in fine beard-stroking form), a prince who's trying to cross the country secretly to make his claim to the throne. The two team up for the journey and fight numerous battles along the way, but with such a light touch that when Ho greets a posse of attackers with "aha, so you must be the legendary Four Cripples," it's genuinely amusing rather than daft. Lau's sure handling of the comedy is coupled with brilliantly precise choreography - the fights are never really about violence, they just leave you gasping at the ways in which human bodies can move in harmony. That's particularly true in the case of the two most famous scenes, where Wang fights an art dealer and a wine expert while keeping up polite conversation with them.
Lau's 1982 film Legendary Weapons Of China features a less gag-heavy plotline, plus the man himself taking on the multiple duties of writer, director, action choreographer and star. He plays Lui Gung, the head of a newly-disbanded martial arts school: he's realised that a tactical withdrawal from the martial world is the safest response to the invading West and its bullets. The rest of the Boxer society takes issue with his opinion (despite the evidence of a blackly comic demonstration pitting kung fu fighters against guns), and sends three of its members to track him down, not realising that some of them will eventually side with Lui. Again, Lau mixes comedy and action as only he can, reaching a peak in a glorious end battle using all 18 of the classical Chinese weapons. It's obvious that aside from his desire to entertain, Lau has an enormous passion for the traditions of Chinese martial arts - in some Chinese films characters are given an on-screen caption introducing them when they first appear in the story, a courtesy that Lau extends here to the 18 weapons at the climax. The supporting cast are all terrific, even though most of them are Lau's relatives: brothers Lau Kar-Wing and Gordon Liu take up key roles, as does his girlfriend of the time, the lovely Kara Hui Ying-Hang. (Who was 22 when she made this, compared with Lau's age of 52. Gotta respect the man's skills.)
Chang Cheh's directoral style is a little more heavy-handed than Lau Kar-Leung's, but that's not to say it's less effective. The Five Venoms is 1978 vintage Chang in all his glory: a mythic story intended as a showcase for Shaw's latest talent (the trailer promises 'all brand-new pugilistic stars'). As always, it looks lovely and the fights are solidly staged, without the freeform fantasy element that Lau brings to the table. An opening montage brilliantly introduces us to the five remaining students of a renegade martial arts school, each one trained to perfection in a particular animal style of kung fu - scorpion, snake, centipede, gecko and toad. A sixth student is sent out into the world to announce the dissolution of the school, and to fix its reputation by getting the good Venoms to team up against the evil ones. Once you get past the setup of who the goodies and baddies are, the various double-crosses are entertaining: but as always in Chang Cheh films, they result in at least one character having his shirt removed and being lovingly tortured. In this case, it's Lo Meng who's put through an array of classic medieval instruments like the iron maiden, but made out of gold and shot through star filters to make them look pretty.
One of Chang Cheh's highlights in the previous season was Jimmy Wang Yu's breakthrough film, One-Armed Swordsman. It proved to be the start of a popular franchise: Wang Yu returned in, er, Return Of The One-Armed Swordsman, and then in 1971 Chang reworked the basic plot idea with a different cast for The New One-Armed Swordsman. Favourite Chang actor David Chiang plays swordsman Lei Li, whose arrogance when taking on bad guy Long Yizhi (Ku Feng) leads him to hack his own arm off after a defeat. Li retreats from the martial world to work as a cook and bottlewasher in a local inn, which brings back unfortunate memories of Robin's Nest. But when wandering swordsman Feng Junjie (Ti Lung) strolls into town, showing off the twin-bladed skills that made Li famous, he's inspired to fight for right again. Unlike the earlier film, he appears to require no training whatsoever to compensate for the loss of a limb: the plot's more driven by his escalating sense of outrage, and our knowledge that at some point his pacifist ideals will be cast aside in favour of spectacular hacking and slashing. And when that moment comes, it's as magnificent as you'd hoped it would be: though we have to first go through the inevitable big gay bonding between the two male leads, which becomes so intense that even female lead Li Ching complains on screen about feeling left out. It's possible that I may be reading too much into the subtext, but if Chris's Invincible Super-Blog has taught us anything, it's that 'subtext' is an anagram of 'butt sex'.
Lau and Cheng both had an agenda aside from simply directing movies - whether it was promoting the martial arts, or examining the character of the Chinese male. King Hu, on the other hand, has filmmaking in his blood, and is more of a pure artist than the other two: his Dragon Inn was a highlight of the previous Heroic Grace season, and The Valiant Ones holds a similar position here. After the stylised sets and fake exteriors of several Shaw productions in a row, it's a literal breath of fresh air to see a film like this made almost entirely on location. Some gorgeous opening shots of the sea set us up visually for the tale of piracy to follow. The pirates are Japanese (at one point their identity is revealed by their evil socks), and a group of warriors led by Yu Dayou (Roy Chiao Hung) has been assembled to stop them. Yu has been brought in for his intelligence, so much of the film details his numerous cunning plans for luring the pirates out into the open.
But rest assured, when the time comes to deal out fistular justice, there's no holding back. Hu is helped enormously here by his choice of choreographer, the young Sammo Hung (who also appears in bizarre makeup as the Pirate King). Sammo's fights in this film veer towards the stylised acrobatics of Peking Opera, but that's by no means a problem: and Hu slows down his editing during the scraps so we can appreciate true artists at work. As in the first season, Hu's contribution to this one is the closest we have to an unarguably great film, and it's just a shame that I can't track down a clip for you on YouTube: you'll have to make do with a trailer for a recent remake, Valiant Ones 2007.
If there's one new discovery I've taken away from Heroic Grace 2, it's the work of Chor Yuen, who turns out to have been another of the key directors on the Shaw roster. Having said that, I don't think his 1976 film The Magic Blade was the best introduction to his work, given the problems with its narrative structure. At its heart is the story of two swordsmen, Fu (Ti Lung) and Yen (Lo Lieh), who last crossed swords a year ago and are ready for a rematch. But they find out that a bad guy called Yu (Tang Ching) is threatening to take over the martial world, so they put aside their differences to team up and try to stop him, avoiding characters like Devil Grandma along the way.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," said Arthur C Clarke: but as Ti Lung's sword is merely mounted on an axled handle, it seems a bit much to call the film The Magic Blade based on that. As usual, Ti Lung's charisma sustains this film over its ropier passages, but the blatant use of after-the-fact plot devices is a bit much. Too many of the conflicts end up with one person saying something like "Ha! My magic sword has poisoned you!", and the other replying "Ha! You didn't count on my magic-sword-poison repelling cloak, did you?" Still, the fights are fun to watch, particularly if you can spot several future Hong Kong action stars like Yuen Biao and Corey Yuen in the stunt team.
Clans Of Intrigue was made a year later in 1977, and has the same director, star, and source novelist (Ku Long). I found Clans much more enjoyable than its predecessor: possibly because I was used to the formula second time around, or possibly because the latter film wears its silliness on its sleeve from the word go, rather than starting sensibly and then drifting into surrealism. Ti Lung - who, amusingly, I first discovered in A Better Tomorrow, not realising that John Woo was paying homage to the actor's earlier roles in stuff like this - is a thieving swordsman who lives on a boat with his three female disciples hem hem. It's an existence of quiet reflection and dinner parties, ruined by the sudden appearance of the leader of Magic Water Palace, who accuses him of murder and gives him just a couple of days to clear his name before being executed. Having set this all up as a whodunnit, Yuen manages to keep it as one for the entire running time, while supplying all the action that the Shaw brand requires. This leads to several entertaining scenes where Lung is interrogating people while he fights them, literally pausing to ask questions in between blows.
Clams Of Intrigue, as we kept calling it by mistake all weekend, is much more fun overall than The Magic Blade, though it's interesting to see that both movies feel the need to throw in a nude lesbian scene at the penultimate reel - I'm not sure if this is a trademark of the writer, the director, or both. The movie works both as action and whodunnit, although there's one outrageous bit of plotting that's guaranteed to throw you off the scent of the mystery: but as the film is working in a fairly fantastic idiom throughout, you don't feel cheated. And it means you also get to accept things like the big fight climax, where a female kung-fu master pulls off a jaw-dropping move to bring about the demise of the baddie. The cast is visibly enjoying itself enormously: Ti Lung is his usual charming self, while Nora Miao gets to show her action stylings for those of us who've only ever seen her playing The Girl in the Bruce Lee films.
Ah, yes, Bruce Lee. You couldn't really have a season of 1970s and 1980s Hong Kong films without mentioning him, surely? Heroic Grace 2 celebrates his unparalleled influence on the martial arts genre, with a pair of high-definition digital transfers of his two best Hong Kong films. (Curiously, both of them turn out to be flawed - one has a couple of out-of-focus shots, the other has short audio dropouts.) Fist Of Fury was the second film Bruce made with director Lo Wei as an actor for hire: after this, he started exercising a lot more control over his movies. It's the classic old tale of the murdered head of a Chinese martial arts school, and the student who seeks revenge from the rival Japanese school responsible.
As with The Valiant Ones, this is another dodgy bit of anti-Japanese racism, and an even less subtle one: the Japanese are all depicted with bad teeth or enormous glasses, and when Bruce has to impersonate one to get information he actually uses both. But, at the same time, it's a film that's very proud of its Chinese roots. The scene where Bruce smashes a park sign reading 'No Chinese Or Dogs Allowed' is guaranteed to get a local audience whooping, as is Bruce's proclamation of the superiority of Chinese martial arts, in both word and deed. It's really nothing more than a crude vengeance melodrama, which just exists as a framework for the fight scenes: and terrific as those fights are, you can see why Bruce wanted his films to be more than that.
Hence Way Of The Dragon, in which Bruce was writer, director, star and choreographer. Its story isn't much more complex than that of the earlier film: Bruce is Tang Lung, sent by a relative from Hong Kong to Rome to help the owners of a Chinese restaurant in their fight against gangsters. But Lee's ambition shows in the number of firsts this film has for a Hong Kong production: shot in a foreign location, rushes produced in colour rather than the usual black and white, and the rare use of a wholly original score. (Apart from that steal from Once Upon A Time In The West that nobody talks about, of course.) Plus, for better or worse, there's Bruce's attempt to leaven the early part of the film with broad comedy, depicting Tang Lung as a New Territories hick unfamiliar with Western menus, customs and toilets. The gags are still tacky looking today, but they show a definite attempt to broaden the appeal of the film (particularly to international audiences), and the transition from gags to violence is carefully controlled.
It's not perfect, but then again, it's his debut film: and one that was revolutionary in terms of the market it came from. The rest of Bruce Lee's ambitions as a director lie sadly buried within the atrocity that is Game Of Death, where the small amount he shot before his untimely death was cack-handedly shoehorned into a wholly different film with the help of the worst lookalike in movie history. But seeing the ambition at work here, even with all of the film's flaws, makes you sad that we never found out how he would develop as a filmmaker, never mind as an action star. And we still have that astonishing climax at the Coliseum: where Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris take the basic idea of two men fighting empty-handed to the death, and carefully set a standard that hasn't been achieved by anyone else since. Bruce even coaxes some acting out of Norris in his final closeups - that beautifully timed "I'm fucked now, aren't I?" look - and anyone who can do that obviously had directoral talent to burn.
Hong Kong director Tsui Hark staged his own fight in the Coliseum several years later, in Jean-Claude Van Damme's Double Team: he had to fill the arena with landmines and a wandering tiger to generate any comparable excitement. Tsui's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach made a big impression on me during my early years as a Hong Kong fanboy: when I first saw Once Upon A Time In China at the 1991 LFF, I was convinced it was one of the greatest films I'd ever seen. Sixteen years and countless older martial arts movies later, I'm not so sure. There's still lots to like - Tsui is inacapable of shooting an uninteresting-looking image, and the themes of invasion by foreigners and the potential damage to culture were hot topics in pre-1997 Hong Kong. Plus, there's Jet Li's splendid performance as the hero Wong Fei Hung. As with Chow Yun-Fat, there's a charm and grace to Li's performance that simply hasn't been used by the Hollywood filmmakers he's subsequently worked with, as they tend to just run with the Scowly Quiet Chinese Bloke That Hits People stereotype. But despite his best efforts, the film itself is a big old mess, really. It's overblown, with far too many subplots going on simultaneously, and at least one big scene which appears to have been cobbled together from random shots off the cutting room floor. The wire fu looked revolutionary when I first saw it, but it looks tired and a little too obvious now that everyone's been doing it since The Matrix. I dunno, maybe less is more after all.
Sadly, I wouldn't hold out much hope for a Heroic Grace 3 ever making it over to the UK, given the disappointingly small audiences for the films we saw in HG2. It's a crying shame, as the films in this season are just as entertaining as the ones in the first season were, and there are obviously hundreds more that could be dug out of the archives if the demand was there. But it looks like the demand isn't there, at least in London anyway. As a tiny consolation, at least by the end of the season we had a very nice new dim sum restaurant open just around the corner from BFI Southbank. I always find it best to be thankful for small mercies. Being a monkey, and all.