As I said earlier, I’ve been binging on my spiritual celluloid comfort food, martial arts movies. Last time I went in-depth on one of the more… um, remarkable ones (boy howdy did I make remarks), now let’s see how many I can sort-of-briefly talk about until I once again get sick of my own voice.
This all started with Criterion’s blu-ray release of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which I had seen perhaps twenty years ago, when I was actually starting to take my education on Asian action films seriously. In those olden days, online information was sparse (and really, so was “online”), and you had to make do with what you could find, and all I had to go on was some passing references to Zen as an important movie. I slapped it on my Netflix queue (remember those?) and did, in fact, get pretty impressed. It was split over two sides of a flipper disc, so yeah, it’s a long movie – but it’s also deservedly considered a masterpiece.
Hsu Feng is Yang, a scholar who is content eking out a living with his paintings and calligraphy in a small trading village built around an abandoned fort. A young lady, Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun) moves in to the fort, but resists the attempts of Yang’s mother to matchmake between the two. There have also been an odd assortment of people wandering through the village, inordinately interested in the young lady, and some other merchants…
We’ll eventually find out that she’s the daughter of a lord who was disgraced, tortured and killed several years before by an evil eunuch running The Eastern Chamber (reliable villains in wuxia films). She and her general have spent the last couple of years training in martial arts at a nearby monastery, and are hoping to use them to achieve their vengeance. Yang may not be a warrior, but he has spent his life studying military strategy, and is delighted that he can help his newfound love with his knowledge. He accurately predicts what the various movements of the enemy mean, and constructs an intricate trap at the fort, building on its reputation for being haunted, allowing the outnumbered forces of good to successfully take on a small army.
King Hu’s visual storytelling game is obviously strong from the beginning; it is almost five minutes before we see a human being (he always made fruitful use of the varying landscape of Taiwan), and there are perhaps two dozen lines of dialogue in the first thirty minutes. Everything else is shown – almost pure cinema. The literal centerpiece of the movie is a fight scene in a bamboo forest (inspiration for countless battles in years to come), which must have been an absolute bear to film, but the camera moves – with stalks of bamboo in the foreground providing an exhilarating sense of dimensionality and movement – make that trouble worth it.
At three hours, timorous studio executives (of course) felt it too long and at first split it up into two movies, with that fight scene ending the first and reprised at the beginning of the second. Small wonder, as our two good guys – Sheng-zhai and her retainer, General Shi (Bai Ying) are over-matched by their two adversaries, and must pull off a desperate measure that would become rather expected in later movies but leaves Yang and the other non-combatant (and the audience) gawping in amazement.
Based on Lu Song-ping’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, the movie somewhat bizarrely – to Western viewers, anyway – comes to a successful, bittersweet conclusion, only to switch protagonists and continue for another half-hour, with a new, even more powerful villain, a development that always surprises me. It’s practically another mini-movie in itself.
Two years in production, most of which was building that fort and letting the grass grow to a realistic height. Now restored and beautiful, A Touch of Zen is highly recommended. This trailer for the UK Masters of Cinema edition:
Watching this reminded me that I still hadn’t seen the previous King Hu movie, Dragon Inn, though I’ve seen practically every other movie playing off it’s pedigree, like New Dragon Gate Inn and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn in 3-D. I note that Letterboxd has a poster similar in style to Criterion’s Touch of Zen, which hopefully means a blu-ray from them at some point. Right now I just have to deal with this plain old primitive DVD.
This is going to sound familiar, but a decent lord is persecuted, prosecuted and executed by an evil eunuch of the Eastern Chamber, and his family is exiled to Dragon Gate, on the outskirts of civilization. Attempts are made to murder them on the way, thwarted by folks still aligned with the dead lord. The isolated Dragon Inn is run by a former retainer, and it becomes the central point for both factions as the family gets closer and closer.
Watching Dragon Inn after A Touch of Zen is instructive in many ways, especially in the casting. Shih Chun is once again the badass swordwoman, though this time dressed like a man so that, in the way of Shakespeare and wuxia films, it is automatically assumed she is a man. Hsu Feng this time is playing the kung fu hero who is so damned good he usually only carries his umbrella into battle. Ray Chiao, who played the near-invincible monk in Zen is also against that type as Shih’s brother, a decent enough fighter, but a hothead.
The fights are plentiful, varied and interesting. King’s combat aesthetic was heavily influenced by Peking Opera, so the swordplay remains pretty realistic, except for the fact that there seem to be plentiful mini-trampolines scattered about for some unrealistic jumps. Dragon Inn is just short of two hours, and it does seem a little stretched out in the final act, but it does have a more solid throughline than Zen. If you’re a wuxia fan, you’ve probably already seen it. If not, you should.
All this means that I need to go back and re-watch the movie that made King’s career take off, Come Drink With Me, which is a movie I had given up on ever seeing until Celestial started putting out remastered movies from the Shaw Brothers vault in the early part of the century. It was one of their very first DVDs, and my first overseas purchase.
Though not yet. After a conversation about the brevity and relative sedateness of Polly Kwan’s fights (not her fault) in Kung Fu Halloween, I felt the need for a more fearsome female fighter, so helloooo Angela Mao Ying in Lady Whirlwind, which was re-titled – rather risibly, to capitalize on a certain porn movie that was making waves at the time – Deep Thrust.
The first thing you’re going to notice about that trailer is that there is not enough Angela in it. When you watch the movie, you will see that is a complaint that can also be applied to the movie itself. Angela plays Miss Tien, who is looking for the guy who’s the centerpiece in the other fight scenes, Ling (Chang Yi). He opens the movie by being beaten up and left for dead, which will be a continuing motif for the next hour. Tien is looking for him because he abandoned her pregnant sister, who then committed suicide. There is some intimation that the Chief Bad Guy having his thugs leave him for dead was the cause of this abandonment, but the story moves forward rather too quickly to ever elucidate on this – Ling, who’s been practicing his kung fu, begs Tien to leave off killing him until after he has his vengeance.
Thing is, the bad guy has a new henchman who’s a 6th degree red belt in karate, and he makes short work of Ling. Tien rescues him from being buried alive, and while Ling is wandering around dazed after that, he helps a old Korean herbalist, who in gratitude teaches him the Tai Chi Palm, which will finally allow him to win a fight. Meanwhile, that karate creep everybody is afraid of? Tien finishes him off without much of a sweat.
Exactly why the hell Mao Ying isn’t the actual main character of a movie called Lady Whirlwind will be puzzling scholars into the next few centuries. She easily dominates every scene she’s in, and she’s never onscreen for any length of time before some scumbag is flying through the air and screaming ai-yaaaah. She was an actual black belt in Hapkido, and her sureness of motion and controlled energy demonstrates that. I am never going to stop believing her talents were criminally wasted in Enter the Dragon, but then I also have to admit that is likely the only one of her movies most Western moviegoers have seen.
The quality of this rip is not great, but you can at least tell that the guy in brown is a very young Sammo Hung, at this point in his career basically just a villainous punching bag for Angela, a role which he assayed often and very well:
Though it’s never going to be considered an art film like King Hu’s entries, Lady Whirlwind is very entertaining, even if you spend several fight scenes drumming your fingers, waiting for Ling to get beaten down again so Angela can take center stage once more.
I had thought that three movies would be my limit this week, but now that I’ve brought up Sammo, I have to go on to a movie from the other end of his career, the 2015 Rise of the Legend. This may mean this gets posted a day later than planned – my apologies.
Rise of the Legend is another attempt to restart the Wong Fei-hung franchise, and this is going to confuse people like myself who mainly know the character from the Once Upon a Time in China movies or Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master flicks, because this is apparently the Zack Snyder version of Master Wong. Through the opening and into the first, say, ten minutes I wasn’t sure if the character I was watching was actually Wong Fei-hung, not because he is taking on all comers in a massive alley fight, but because he’s pretty matter-of-factly killing thugs. Jet Li and Jackie didn’t hesitate to put the hurt on people who were asking for it, but we are definitely dealing with a meaner version here. Dare I say… “grittier”.
Fei-hung (Eddie Peng), we will find out in subsequent flashbacks, was orphaned when his father (Hi, Tony Leung!) roughed up a scumbag slaver who kidnapped and sold one of the orphans kind-hearted dad had been taking care of. His clinic was torched by the scumbag’s gang, and Dad died getting the kids out. The adolescent Fei-hung and his close friend Fiery (Jing Boran) sought revenge, only to find the gang was killed by another gang. They are carried away by a monk who teaches them kung fu and does his best to quell their bloodthirsty fires of vengeance.
The plan they hatch in a calmer maturity involves Fiery organizing a gang called the Orphan Gang (including some of the kids Dad Wong was caring for) while Fei-hung works his way up the hierarchy of the Black Tiger Gang, which is consolidating its hold over the docks, opium dens, and crime in general. That’s where we start in media res: Fei-hung literally fetching the head of a rival gang, ingratiating himself to the leader of the Black Tigers, who is the reason we’re doing one more movie… Sammo Hung.
Sammo has come full circle in a long and excellent career. These days I only see him in villain roles, but he’s nobody’s punching bag anymore. Fei-hung becomes the fourth of the sub-bosses under Sammo, and then his and Fiery’s plan kicks into gear.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews trash this movie, but I have to admit it kept me interested for a little over two hours. I doubt its validity as a Wong Fei-hung story, but as a Yojimbo-esque crime drama, it’s pretty good. As we head into the third act, the story stumbles a bit – there’s one sacrifice too many for cheap emotion, one turncoat that’s a little too easy, but I did appreciate the way the overall plot was teased out.
A lot of rancor goes toward the fight scenes, which I also find unfair – Corey Yuen is the fight coordinator, and I had no complaints except for (you were waiting for the “except for”, weren’t you?) the final showdown between Sammo and Peng, which is technically pretty, but emotionally vacant, and accordingly unsatisfying.
The rest of the movie I have no complaints about – it’s quite handsomely mounted, with a soundtrack that at several point evokes Morricone, and that’s a good thing. But let’s just pretend that the main character’s name is just a coincidence, okay, and go watch Once Upon a Time in China again.
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