NYAFF 2011: Tribute to a Wuxia Wizard, Part 1

“Wuxia culture is like another dimension that provides us with strong emotion, strong passion. I have always been a fan of Wuxia movies. They give us a refreshed view of what we had before, of the values and of the way we looked at life.”

– Tsui Hark

The beauty of events like the New York Asian Film Festival is that they offer the viewer a chance to engage with a filmmaker”s work in a more organic way. Allowing those with a clear passion for “these types of films” to meet, discuss, and admire them in an environment that not only celebrates genre filmmaking at its finest, but on rare, fortuitous occasions, even attracts directors to make the long sojourn to The Big Apple to present their films and talk about them with fans. This year, in honor of the festival’s ten year anniversary, Subway Cinema presented, within the span of a very densely scheduled three day weekend, a mini-retrospective of Tsui Hark’s films culminating in the Hong Kong filmmaker receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for his entire body of work to date. Though the festival only showed a smattering of Hark”s oeuvre, the director has worked consistently since the late “70s, racking up a filmography of almost sixty films which he has either been producer, director, writer, and even actor.  The four films screened at the festival perfectly encapsulate why audiences have been coming to the movies since the days of Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, basically to travel to distant, possibly imaginary, worlds without having to leave the comfort of our climate controlled caves.

Tsui was born in Vietnam in 1951, spent his teenage years in Hong Kong, and then immigrated to the United States for college.  His cosmopolitan and transitory upbringing had a clear influence on the type of stories he wanted to tell. The four films shown at NYAFF starting with Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), The Blade (1995) and finally culminating in the U.S. premiere of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) are structured around a quest narrative.   It should be no surprise for Harkophiles, but Tsui’s dream project has always been transposing Wu Cheng’en’s novel Journey to the West for the big screen.

Though Tsui has not yet realized this dream, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, a film famous not only for inspiring a plethora of future special effects artists in Hong Kong but also for influencing John Carpenter in his own cult film Big Trouble in Little China (1986),  can easily be seen as a practice run as Tsui treats his audience to a phantasmagorical wuxia adventure tale with former Seven Little Fortunes star Yuen Biao playing skittish foot soldier Ti Ming-Chi, who pledges his life to the mystic  Ting Yin (Adam Cheng) after being rescued from a cave of ravenous bat-men. The two men are later joined by the warrior monk Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau) and his bumbling acolyte Yi Chen (Mang Hoi) and are soon embroiled on a quest to vanquish the ancient evil forces of the Blood Demon. Although a part of the long casino online tradition of wuxia narratives in which warriors are able to bend the laws of nature and perform extraordinary feats, Zu is a breed apart from that hallowed lineage.

Ultimately, what is important in Tsui”s film is not so much the completion of the quest, but rather grounding the viewer in the realm of the jianghu, where history and legend stand side by side. Tsui supplants the inherent brutality of that era, one of of great civil strife, with white eye-browed wizards and warrior priestesses doing battle with ghoulish warlocks and fiery specters. And although well-stocked with mini-adventures to entertain the audience the comic interplay between the cast of characters trapped in a fantasy world of Tsui”s creation is what elevates it from just being mindless entertainment. We may root for our heroes to win and even squirm when they get injured, but they are also human, suffering from commonplace foibles like love, fear, and anger. During one of the post-screening Q&A sessions, Tsui admitted to a great admiration and love for the work of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and it is not such a leap to state that all the Tsui Hark films screened at the NYAFF espouse a very Kurosawan philosophy. These epic gorgeously shot films are focused mainly on stories about individuals trying to be heroes at the cost of their own humanity. By the end of the film Ti Ming-Chi has transformed from a cowardly fool to a muscle shirt-wearing man’s man, of course this transformation was paid for by a trail of death and destruction, illustrating the common thread that ties all Harkian protagonists:  those who take up the sword to fight are doomed to end up as lone travelers with nothing but their blades to keep them company.

This trope is carried over to Hark”s 1995 gritty wuxia masterpiece The Blade, shown for the last time to a theater audience at this year”s NYAFF. A loose remake of the Shaw Brothers” classic The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), Tsui”s re-imagining  excises all of the romance and just leaves behind a bleak nihilist husk of a picture. Replacing the exotic fantasy elements of Zu with the noisy bazaar/casbah locale of The Blade, this international no-man’s land where peoples from every nation freely mingle and do business with each other is reminiscent of Casablanca (1942). Of course with a few cosmetic changes, namely the Nazis are now a melange of vaguely Middle Eastern looking thugs, Ilsa, Ingrid Bergman’s role, is transformed into the sexually repressed girl-child Ling played by Song Lei and the love triangle between leading lady, cynical American expat Rick Blaine and Nazi resistance leader Victor Laszlo has been rejiggered to be a Cain and Abel type rivalry between one-armed “cripple” Ding On (Vincent Zhao) and jealous best friend Iron Head (Moses Chan). All of these details and the avant-garde visual style have often lead critics to pair Hark’s film with Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time (1995) as examples of post-modern wuxia.  However, this was mere window-dressing to what drew audiences to see it, the wire-fu action scenes.

Instead of a simplistic white hats versus black hats battle though The Blade belongs to that wonderfully cathartic sub-genre of macho-cinema, the revenge flick.  Ding On was orphaned as a baby when his father was viciously killed by tattooed assassin Fei Lung, played by Xin Xin Xiong, leaving behind his broken Dao for his grown-up son to inherit, master, and use to exact righteous vengeance. Of course, like all heroes, On doesn’t start kicking ass until much later in the picture. He does the dance of all wuxia heroes: seeing an injustice being committed, a monk savagely beaten, On is infuriated but does nothing except seethe with anger until he, himself, is a victim of violence. Nursed back to health by an illiterate farm girl, he spends an inordinate amount of time meditating and training until eventually he lets go of his anger which, in turn, prompts his rebirth as a warrior. In conjunction with the code of xia he systematically practices his new skills by defeating horde after horde of barbarian bandits until ultimately confronting his true enemy, his father’s killer, so the circle of violence can be completed. Though the wuxia genre is greatly influenced by Buddhist tenets, simpler “an eye for an eye” retributive philosophy trumps these high-minded ideals in The Blade.

Oftentimes read as a political allegory for the uneasy tension felt due to the eventual handover of Hong Kong back into Mainland China’s fold Tsui Hark debunked this interpretation during the film’s post screening Q&A. Claiming an almost childlike innocence to the politicized interpretation The Blade can be enjoyed purely for its entertainment value, the fight scenes are as usual for a Tsui Hark film exceptional, but to say that there is nothing of socio-historical value in the film specifically in regards to the milieu that it was made in would be stretching it, especially since Hark’s journalism background and documentary experience when he lived in New York during the 1970’s make him no stranger to confronting harsh truths. I mean it can’t be a coincidence that Hark changed the setting of his film from a martial arts school in Chang Cheh’s original to a grimy industrial factory in his version. Possibly a sly nod to the fact that supplying warriors is big business then and now, and that commerce is what ultimately keeps societies from crumbling. That the barbarians pounding at the gates will eventually through their desire for what cities have to offer will assimilate into the very culture that they are trying to conquer. A perfect example of this in The Blade is an unnamed prostitute character played by Valerie Chow, an underrated actress famous for her role in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), whose pragmatic approach to survival leads her to take on all comers who abuse her body but she seems to always end up with her dignity and independence still relatively intact. An allegory maybe for the exploitation of Hong Kong by the various Western and Eastern powers vying for its attention?

This article is part one of a two part series on Tsui Hark.  Part two is available here.  Also, check out our audio interview with Tsui Hark himself!