NYAFF 2011: Tribute to a Wuxia Wizard, Part 2

“It may seem like the martial arts world has always been dominated by male characters. But that”s only the physical difference. When you write in a female warrior in a male-dominated story, she takes on a kind of strength and mental integrity that do no distinguish her from her male counterparts. My idea is to create an impact when you see a woman fighter fighting with all the might of a man.”

– Tsui Hark

This unique Harkian view of gender dynamics with men as the weaker, dependent sex and women as both sexual predator and ironically far more masculine than the spotlighted hero is evident in New Dragon Gate Inn, a film directed by Raymond Lee, but exhibiting all the hallmarks of a Tsui Hark production. Set primarily in a desert outpost, which if shot for the small screen, Tsui’s film would be labeled a bottle episode, the film crams the entire cast into the tight quarters of the eponymously named Dragon Inn.  Here, Jade King, played with equal parts comedy and drama by Maggie Cheung, caters to the guests she likes and makes pork buns of those she hates. The plot is threadbare involving a Ming dynasty eunuch Tsao played by Donnie Yen, at his Bond villain best, trying to usurp power from the Emperor. Killing practically all those who oppose him, Tsao allows a girl and her little brother to live, but only as bait to trap and kill his only rival, the rebel general Chow Wai-on (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Although Chow”s rescue from death is a success, all due in part to the help of Chow’s lover Yau Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin), all the involved parties soon find themselves trapped at Jade’s inn anxiously waiting to either fight or flee. Though not lacking in action fight scenes,  the film boasts a romantic love triangle between Chow, Jade and Yau which sets it apart from other films of its kind.

Maggie Cheung and Brigitte Lin, no stranger to androgynous roles, are not stuck in the typical “catty” female or bitch goddess parts. The role of Yau Mo-yan, played by Lin, can easily be traced to other swordswomen in cinema’s past, specifically the roles Cheng Pei-pei played during her days working at Shaw Brothers studio. Also, as I watched Dragon Gate Inn, Lin”s character reminded me a lot of Joan of Arc, an ascetic warrior whose heart was not as cold as the steel of her blade. Lin’s portrayal of Yau, who must dress and, to a certain extent, act like a man, seamlessly shifts from masculine to feminine through body language, exuding compassion and jealousy through her glances at Chow or brute strength by the way she grips her jian. In sharp contrast to Yau Mo-yan’s stoicism is the sexy minx Jade, played by Maggie Cheung, who is characterized by her loud and noisy demeanor, constantly arguing and using doublespeak to get what she wants. Having mainly seen Cheung in serious acting roles I was pleasantly surprised that she could not only exhibit the sensuality she is famous for in her roles for Wong Kar-Wai, but that she has a natural gift for comedy. A perfect example of this is during Yau and Jade’s first confrontation as both women engage in an acrobatic duel with each combatant trying to disrobe the other. Instead of merely capturing our prurient interest in their fight, what glued my eye sockets to the screen was how each woman, through there choreographed dance, flirted with each other.  As Jade zipped from one spot to another, rolling and tumbling, Yau, playing the recalcitrant male lead, stood her ground and parried Jade’s attacks. New Dragon Gate Inn is replete with duels, the pinnacle being the 5 against 1 match between the main cast and Donnie Yen at film’s climax, but these few minutes of celluloid between Maggie and Brigitte is what stands out for me as both silent comedy and balletic action.

The final picture shown at the NYAFF, Detective Dee casino and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, is in many ways a summation of all the themes present in Tsui’s three previous films. Ostensibly an wuxia Agatha Christie story, Detective Dee, enemy of the Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau), is let out of jail to find the cause of a series of spontaneous human combustion cases. Though Tsui has expressed that his films are apolitical,  it is very difficult to not see the parallels between the plot of Detective Dee and the Bush presidency of the noughts. A collapsing tower, an unpopular ruler taking power through less than legal means, morality behind the use of torture, talking deer representing the religious right….okay not everything gels with my central thesis. Yet, it is again wholly impossible to believe that an artist like Tsui would not have been affected by the life-changing global events from the past ten years and blended them with the true to life stories of the real Judge Dee, real name Di Renjie, and the fictional Judge Dee from Dutch author Robert van Gulik’s series of novels to create a character that may dress in period costume, but that modern audiences can still relate to.

Side-stepping the cliches of portraying a benevolent sage/wise-man archetype, a la Charlie Chan, or playing an embittered lawman ubiquitous with American crime films that love to pair up rookie cops with veteran detectives who are only a few weeks away from retirement,  Andy Lau’s Detective Dee has more in common with the late Peter Falk’s Columbo, being the smartest person in the room, knowing that and yet making everyone anxiously wait before he reveals another piece of the puzzle. During a press conference for the film in Hengdian, Lau revealed that, to prepare for the role, he studied criminal psychology.  The fact that, unlike previous Harkian protagonists who were armed with an archetypical sword, Detective Dee carries a special type of baton, a defensive weapon, that can nullify his opponents attacks, makes Lau’s character a departure from the heroes in Tsui’s earlier films.  Dee is an ambivalent hero, unable to rely mainly on his physical skills or supernatural abilities to defeat his enemies and, at times, even unsure of who is friend or foe. Dee’s former compatriot, the bureaucrat Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-fai), says it best when he angrily accuses Dee of betraying his ideals, opposing the Empress one moment, and then doing her bidding like a faithful dog the next. An accusation that may seem trivial to you or me, but in the world of wuxia, a serious crime since martial arts heroes are beholden to a strict code, the code of xia, stipulating that the oppressed must be freed and the oppressors violently punished.  A similar trope is found in the stories of chivalric knights roaming Medieval Europe and the noble samurai from Japan’s warrior past. By having Lau’s Detective Dee character be less than “heroic” and more pragmatic, Tsui seems to be moving away from the purity of myth and legend and embracing a more modern worldview. Andy Lau’s Detective Dee is no longer a lone robin hood-type figure like the Ding On character in The Blade or the traveling band of warriors in Zu, working to fix society but operating on the fringes of the civilized world. Instead, Detective Dee is, for all his skills and knowledge, just a civil servant, part of the establishment, who is subject to the whims of a paranoid ruler he had no faith in and now must do the bidding of. Also, whereas the love triangle integral to the plot of The Blade and New Dragon Gate Inn was a messy hodgepodge of hysteria, sexual repression and seething passions the love triangle between Dee, Empress Wu Zetian and her bodyguard Shangguan Jing’er (Li Bingbing) is a frigid affair, almost a narrative afterthought and lost amongst all the double and triple crosses in the story. Yet, the most glaring flaw with Tsui’s new film is its lacks of the humor found in the three earlier films screened at the festival. Professing a great love for comedy and certainly capable of handling slapstick, Tsui could have  lightened the tone of the heavier moments of Detective Dee with a well-placed joke or gag.

What Detective Dee has going for it in spades though is the top notch special effects work as Tsui adopts a visual aesthetic that the director has described as “virtual realism.” Although utilizing the magic of CGI a majority of the film was shot in the world’s largest film studio, Hengdian World Studio, which in turn gave Detective Dee a sense of scale and grandiosity that lesser films usually attempt to mimic through spectacle. Instead of cheap theatrics, AZ Works, the visual effects company Tsui contracted to help realize his vision, added volume and depth to the story by focusing on world-building, crafting an entire city that stretches far outside our purview. Though not as reliant as he once was on the folktales and legends of China’s past, the palaces, temples, and forests in Detective Dee are not just mere background from which the action takes place at. There is great care taken in building mood and atmosphere, not to mention claustrophobia since any brief moment of respite that Dee finds is soon invaded by some malevolent force bent on disturbing his hard-won peace.

It’s hard to imagine what’s next for Tsui Hark. He has talked a great deal about 3-D and his next film, The Flying Sword of Dragon Gate, will be shot using that technological novelty. It’s a bit sad though if, like many established grandmasters of cinema, Tsui retreats completely to empty formalism as he remakes film after film only improving on its look and not adding much else. Though one can’t really fault the man since it must be tempting to be a filmmaker with as much critical cache as Tsui and not want to remake and “fix” the perceived mistakes of past masterpieces. No matter what he plans to do though, and here’s hoping for more great work, whatever the future may hold, Tsui Hark’s name will always be synonymous with the image of a lone warrior clutching a sword, usually a dao, traveling to far-off lands for honor, glory, and above all else, adventure.

(Part one of this feature can be found here)

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