Tuesday, August 12, 2003  
 Clubs TonightHot TixBand GuideMP3sBest Music PollGuide to SummerThe Best 
 By Movie | By Theater | Film Specials | Hot Links | Review Archive |  
Editors' Picks
New This Week
News and Features

Food & Drink


Stuff at Night
The Providence Phoenix
The Portland Phoenix
FNX Radio Network

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

More art than martial
Chinese kung fu films at the MFA

The countless kung fu films that Hong Kong churned out in the ’70s have left a mixed legacy. On the one hand, the skill of Bruce Lee and other stars is still admired. On the other, the routine quality and the childishness of many of these movies make a dim impression. "Heroic Grace," a touring series of landmark Chinese martial-arts films organized by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, gives Western viewers a chance to discover the rich tradition underlying the genre — and to see in beautiful widescreen prints some of the genre’s best and most entertaining representatives.

The tradition is called wuxia, which sometimes translated as "martial chivalry." Wuxia has a literary history lasting more than two millennia; its cinematic history dates at least to the 1920s. The undisputed master of wuxia cinema, King Hu, is represented in this festival by his first masterpiece, Come Drink with Me (Da Zui Zia, 1966; August 8 at 6 p.m. and August 16 at 2 p.m.). Made for Shaw Brothers, which would become Hong Kong’s leading producer of martial-arts films, Come Drink with Me is a prototype for Hu’s later works (Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen, The Fate of Lee Khan). The main plot is simple: mountain bandits have captured the governor’s son and are holding him in a Buddhist temple; the governor’s daughter, known as Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei, who years later played the villainous Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s Hu tribute, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), goes to rescue him.

Hu creates a vivid sense of a magical universe, where the outcome of each skirmish between good and evil depends on the unpredictable intervention of hidden forces. Objects seem magically charged and surrounded by invisible force fields, a point beautifully conveyed when Golden Swallow hesitates before pulling out two knives stuck into a wooden railing, as if fearing the uncontrollable consequences her act might unleash. This occult world is doubled by a dynamic space of social interaction, whose privileged setting (as in later Hu films) is the large tavern where a major part of the action is set. As Golden Swallow leaps between ground and upper floors to combat her antagonists, the tavern becomes a fantastic, imaginary space.

The choreography of fights in Come Drink with Me, though not yet at the level of magnificence Hu would achieve in A Touch of Zen and The Fate of Lee Khan, is superb. He creates a graceful fluidity punctuated by moments of surprise as the antagonists bring hidden resources into play. A swordfight in a Buddhist temple reveals his dazzling sense of space, notably in the magical moment when a wall inexplicably opens, allowing Golden Swallow to leap into the courtyard, to which the fight then shifts. Hu also knows how to integrate the fight scenes so that they heighten rather than interrupt the atmosphere, expressing and releasing the thematic tensions that underlie the dialogue scenes.

Chang Cheh’s impressive Vengeance! (Baochou, 1970; August 9 at 4:10 p.m. and August 27 at 8:10 p.m.) uses the formal device (perhaps borrowed from Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge, though the similarity may be coincidental) of interweaving on-stage and real violence. After an opening section in which an actor (Ti Lung) is messily killed at the end of a long battle in a restaurant, the film turns into a remake of John Boorman’s Point Blank, as the actor’s vengeful brother (David Chiang) uses his girlfriend to enter an adversary’s penthouse stronghold, causes another villain to be shot by his own sniper, and joins in the power struggle between two remaining kingpins. The narrative is merely a mechanism for setting up violent encounters: there’s no room in Chang’s world for anything as perverse as Point Blank’s kitchen scene (in which a pissed-off Angie Dickinson turns on all the electric gadgets to the bewilderment of Lee Marvin). Yet Vengeance! does include a stylistic quotation from the American film: the endless echoing sounds of the hero’s hard soles striking the pavement as he starts his quest for revenge. This effect shows that years before John Woo, Hong Kong had a self-conscious cinephile director in Chang. (Woo, it turns out, got his start in the early ’70s as Chang’s assistant.)

From the opening credits (blood-red titles over monochrome silkscreen still images), Vengeance! is extravagantly grim, and it’s done in a fierce, brutal style, with much bloodletting. Chang’s urgent forward camera movements add to an impression of constant, sometimes almost random motion; at one point, in a completely gratuitous piece of visual rawness, the telephoto camera jerkily tries to follow a figure walking up a hill. "We only live today," the hero tells his girl (over a shot of their shadows on a window), and the sense of immersion in the moment is indeed powerful in this film.

Chang’s The Blood Brothers (Ci Ma, 1973; August 15 at 7:45 p.m. and August 30 at 3 p.m.), which reunites Ti Lung and David Chiang and teams them with Chen Kuan Tai, is an altogether higher-spirited affair than Vengeance! Chiang and Chen play bandit brothers who, having failed in their attempt to waylay the ambitious officer Ma (Ti Lung), join up with him to convert a large group of bandits into a powerful army. Again, Chang emphasizes physical skill, above all the precision and grace of Ti Lung, and the visual style is vigorous and splashy, creating a bright spectacle of strong movements. The film really takes off, however, when it turns away from balletic fighting to depict the growing passion between Ma and the wife of one of his partners. Chang handles their affair in a florid style, creating a cloying anti-lyricism through lingering, repetitive camera movements and increasingly sensuous lighting and use of color.

Lau Kar-leung’s Return to the 36th Chamber (Shaolin Dapeng Dashi, 1980; August 23 at 3:30 p.m. and August 29 at 8 p.m.) takes a long and not always agreeable time to get to its one idea — but that proves a damn good one. The story recounts how the owner of a dye mill brings in a gang of Manchu pole fighters to oppress the workers and force them to accept a wage cut. The hapless laborers put their faith in Ah Chieh (Gordon Liu), a mountebank medicine seller who goes to a Shaolin temple to learn kung fu. After much low comedy about Ah Chieh’s attempts to enter the temple, the abbot puts him to work repairing the scaffolding. Up to this point, the movie is broadly acted and directed, unexciting, and unfunny. But as Ah Chieh performs his lengthy task, meanwhile imitating the kung fu students practicing in the courtyard, the film’s idea takes form. By the time the scaffolding is finished and the abbot, to the workman’s disappointment, sends him packing, Ah Chieh has learned kung fu without realizing it. This idea has its belated payoff in the unexpectedly brilliant and satisfying scene in which the hero finds he can use his scaffolding skills to thwart the pole fighters.

Made by Cathay Studios (Shaw’s chief rival at the time), Wang Xinglei’s Escorts over Tiger Hills (Hu Shan Hang, 1969; August 22 at 6:30 p.m. and August 31 at 2:20 p.m.) is done in a style rather different from Hu’s and from the later Shaw ¾sthetic as represented by Chang, Lau Kar-leung, and Chu Yuan. Imagery of fog-shrouded hills, birds massing in the sky, and banners fluttering in the wind suggests a straightforward visual approach to the classical wuxia tradition instead of the aggressive modernization of it that would preoccupy (in different ways) Hu and Chang. The plot has to do with a war between two generals, one of whom drafts Jing Wuji, a former fighter who has become a monk, to escort a group of prisoners over the mountains. The monk’s efforts are complicated by the reappearance of his two vengeful ex-wives.

Wang renders action as a flurry of motions captured in off-balance frames (an approach that prompted the writer of the series’s program notes to compare the director with Wong Kar-wai); the orchestration of action is abrupt and unceremonious (the act of flying upward in midfight to attain a better position is handled with nothing like the clarity of King Hu, or for that matter Ang Lee), and spatial legibility is no priority. Near the end, the director pulls out all his stops: an eerie battle scene proceeds with unexpected swiftness (after a strange preliminary freeze frame of the hero’s face) to a long shot of the survivor whirling around and waving his sword in the middle of a field of corpses. The climactic duel uses fast motion, multiple exposures, and dizzying angle shuffling among high, low, long, and close shots. Throughout, Escorts over Tiger Hills conveys a sense of furious movement within timeless spaciousness: the images are fleeting; nothing holds.

Issue Date: August 1 - August 7, 2003
Back to the Movies table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  find the phoenix |  advertising info |  privacy policy |  the masthead |  feedback |  work for us

 © 2000 - 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group