By Mark Pollard
Hong Kong's kung fu movie genre, kicked off by director Chang Cheh's The Chinese Boxer (1970), has remained popular in the West ever since Lo Lieh broke out in furious combat on grind house theater screens in Five Fingers of Death (1972). But it took another 28 years for a far older Chinese-language movie genre to gain similar popularity. It is called the wuxia pian (pronounced "oo-shyah pea-an") and worldwide audiences received an eye-opening introduction to this world of flying swordsmen and swordswomen when Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) stormed the box office in 2001. However, Chinese audiences were far less enamored with this movie than their Western counterparts. Quite understandable considering that, as entertaining as it was, the movie represents only the tip of an immense literary and filmic iceberg that the Chinese have been chipping away at for well over 500 years.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Definition & Literary Roots
Wuxia is a Mandarin-language term that literally means "martial arts chivalry" and pian simply means "movie." Wuxia itself represents a uniquely Chinese variety of storytelling that dates back long before the advent of filmmaking, at least as far as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is defined by stories that combine China's wushu (martial arts) tradition with deeds of heroic chivalry performed by men and women. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), these tales became epic novels such as Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Protagonists were often sword-bearing warriors of great virtue, who, like Robin Hood or King Arthur, would apply their fighting skills to vanquishing injustices with the edge of their blades.
Within these wuxia novels, a fictional realm developed that blended elements of fantasy with history. This became the jiang hu, or martial world, in which Chinese knight errants living by a code of honor could perform superhuman feats, channel chi energy into magical palm blasts and battle mythical beasts. This essentially became China's version of what Western culture defines as fantasy, where fighting sorcerers, elves, orcs, and halflings live.
Spurned in part by the desire for escapism in a politically-turbulent society, this storytelling tradition has continued to evolve and grow ever more popular in China. Despite the upheaval of China's Cultural Revolution in the 20th century, prolific wuxia novelists have breathed new life into the genre in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. These widely read novels have become the subject of comic books, television series, video games, and, of course, movies.
Early Wuxia Pian and Heroines
As the cultural and commercial center of China in the early part of the 20th century, Shanghai quickly became home to China's burgeoning film industry following its birth in 1913. During the 1920s, predominately fantasy-oriented wuxia pian became very popular. Over thirty film companies filled silent movie screens with purely populist martial arts features that experimented with animation, trick photography and wirework to create their fantastic action. One of these studios was the Tianyi Film Company, run by brothers Runme and Runrun Shaw. From the start, they were quick to plug into the commercial potential by proving to be genre innovators. It was their release of Heroine Li Feifei in 1925 that first introduced the stylized fighting and acrobatics of Chinese opera that, along with gaudy costuming, would become genre standards.
The most prominent example of fantasy wuxia from this period is undoubtedly director Zhang Sichuan's The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928), a 27-hour epic that was serialized into 18 feature-length movies. Like many Hollywood's Westerns and science fiction tales of the 1920s and '30s, wuxia pian were typically serialized. Unfortunately, very few examples of them exist today, apart from Red Heroine (1929) and The Swordswoman of Huangjiang (1930). This latter title stars Chen Zhi-gong, the world's first major martial arts movie star. She appeared in many wuxia pian throughout the decade and is known for having choreographed and performed most or all of her own action sequences. Women like Chen Zhi-gong were traditionally the leading stars in wuxia pian, up until Chang Cheh ushered in a new era of male-dominated martial arts movies in the late 1960s.
Swordswoman of Huangjiang
By the end of the 1920s, wuxia pian had reached a commercial peak, with over 250 movies released within two years alone. But the genre soon suffered a setback. Concerned with the effects that wuxia pian and other less-socially responsible movies were having on audiences, an increasingly hard line nationalistic Chinese government created the National Film Censorship Board in 1931 to ban works deemed inappropriate for public consumption. This began a migration by wuxia filmmakers to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong to carry in on their trade. Japan's invasion of Shanghai in 1937 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949 would drive more filmmaking talent out of mainland China.
The era of wuxia filmmaking in Shanghai was over, but in Hong Kong it was slowly gearing up for greater success. From roughly 1935 to 1960, Hong Kong put out a nearly steady stream of Cantonese-language wuxia movies like The Lady Protector (1947) and A Sword against Five Protectors (1952), where stunt work using trampolines, wires and fantasy special effects continued to evolve. But it wasn't until the mid-1960s that wuxia pian made its first real advancement since the advent of sound.
The film industry in Hong Kong during the 1960s had become a battleground between two rival studios, MP&GI and Shaw Brothers. Both had turned to higher quality, Mandarin-language productions in color, but their output differed. MP&GI focused on more sophisticated and eclectic movies for an emerging educated class, while Shaw Brothers favored the tried and true wuxia pian that remained most popular with the working class.
This strategy ultimately paid off for Shaw Brothers. But while much could be said for their vision and aggressive management, it was the talents of three filmmakers - along with the rise of the action director and the popularity of modern wuxia novels from leading genre authors Louis Cha and Gu Long - that propelled the studio into industry dominance for the next fifteen years and led to the creation of a new breed of wuxia pian.
New Wuxia Pian - Shaw Brothers' Directing Triad
Widely acknowledged as the godfather of modern martial arts film, Chang Cheh redefined cinematic swordplay and guaranteed Shaw Brothers' dominance at the box office when he released the groundbreaking One-Armed Swordsman (Dubei Dao; 1967), starring former competitive swimmer Jimmy Wang Yu. Chang, a one-time movie critic had only directed two wuxia pian previously, but he struck a chord with young audiences on his third attempt by adding to the genre more realistic violence inspired by Japan's samurai movies and elements of youthful rebellion in Hollywood cinema as portrayed by the likes of James Dean.
Chang also effectively did away with the tradition of the leading swordswoman, by putting a male actor in the lead. This movie was the first to crack Hong Kong's $1 million mark and effectively ushered in a new era in martial arts filmmaking that was dominated by tales of masculine heroic bloodshed and brotherhood. Classics such as Have Sword, Will Travel (Bao biao; 1969) and The Heroic Ones (1970), with emerging genre stars Ti Lung and David Chiang, became prototypes for the wuxia pian and kung fu movies that the prolific writer/director would produce throughout the 1970s. Some of Chang's most notable films in successive years would be epic adaptations of classic wuxia novels including The Water Margin and The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Chan came to favor kung fu-styled action in most subsequent movies, but he continued to employ wuxia elements such as esoteric weaponry and superhuman abilities. This can be seen in cult classics like The Five Venoms (1978) and The Kid with the Golden Arm (1979).
Artistically, the filmmaker who had the greatest impact on the genre is King Hu, who joined Shaw Brothers in 1958. His film Come Drink with Me (1966) introduced to the wuxia pian a new level of visual depth and clarity inspired in part by classical Chinese art. He paid as much attention to costuming, sets and locations as he did to directing his star Cheng Pei-pei. A striking young performer trained in song and dance, Cheng was the ideal actress for King Hu to use and this role turned her into a superstar.
Unlike Chang Cheh, King interpreted wuxia sword fighting as a poetic dance and his actors' movements displayed a gracefulness and level of fighting proficiency previously unseen. Ultimately, King proved too much of an auteur for the controlling Shaw brothers and he left to make films independently in Taiwan. His next film was Dragon Gate Inn (1967), which became an instant classic and was remade years later. His leading protagonists continued to be women, yet they were stronger and fiercer than their genre predecessors. With her stern look, actress Hsu Feng became his new star actress when she appeared in A Touch of Zen (1971). This film, which exhibited rich atmosphere and a strong element of Buddhism, earned King the Technical Grand Prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. The film has had a strong influence on modern genre filmmakers and is regarded by many as a masterpiece of wuxia filmmaking.
King Hu never quite matched the success of these three films, but he continued to produce a small number of important independent wuxia pian that offered a stark visual and thematic contrast to the studio films at Shaw Brothers. After a 16-year absence from filmmaking, King attempted a short-lived comeback by first collaborating with producer Tsui Hark to direct Swordsman in 1990. He walked out on the production midway through, but not before leaving his creative stamp on the film.
Although proven versatile enough to work in any genre, the filmmaker most closely associated with the bulk of Shaw Brothers' literary wuxia pian adaptations during the 1970s and early 1980s is Chor Yuen, the son of a famed Cantonese film actor who started working for the studio in 1971. His first major wuxia title was Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Ai nu; 1972), a masterful blend of traditional genre convention and exploitation cinema that brought the usual martial conflicts of the jiang hu into the more socially conscious realm of the brothel. Chor went on to direct a series of dramas, but by 1976 he had begun to venture deep into the wuxia genre with the likes of The Web of Death (1976) and The Magic Blade (1976). At this time, Chor began directing a long series of adaptations from author Gu Long's many wuxia novels.
Of the three leading new wuxia pian directors, Chor had the best visual eye for capturing the more fantastic elements of the mythical jiang hu, from otherworldly settings to distinctive characters as seen in Swordsman and Enchantress (1978), an adaptation of Gu Long's novel The Eleventh Son. This was coupled with his innate dramatic sensibilities, especially towards the sexual identity of female characters. Clans of Intrigue (1977) reflects this in Chor's careful depiction of an unusual love triangle between two women and a swordsman, as played by regular genre star Yueh Hua.
New Wuxia Pian - Louis Cha & Gu Long
Using the penname of Jin Yong, Louis Cha wrote 15 works of historical-based wuxia fiction from 1955 to 1972, all of which became hugely popular. This earned him the distinction of being hailed by many as China's greatest wuxia author. Subsequently, many of his works have been adapted to film, at least eighteen either directly based on a Cha novel or inspired by one. The most notable from the '70s are Chang Cheh's four Brave Archer films (1977-1982), adapted from The Legend of the Condor Heroes. More recent movie adaptations include Tsui Hark's Swordsman (1990) and Swordsman II (Legend of the Swordsman; 1991), both originating from The Smiling, Proud Wanderer. Brigitte Lin's performance as the androgynous "Invincible Asia" was so popular that the unofficial sequel The East is Red (1993) was spawned, even though its plot wasn't based on Cha's novel.
Brigitte Lin in Ashes of Time
Possibly the most ambitious wuxia pian based on Cha's work is Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time (1994), a moody and visually-stunning prequel to "The Legend of Condor Heroes" featuring two of the novel's characters, and also co-starring Lin.
As previously discussed, many of Gu Long's works were transferred to film by director Chor Yuen, with writer Ni Kuang scripting. Born Syong Yaohua, Gu wrote 69 works in all. There was enough demand in the film industry for his continuing work that he even founded his own film company, Bao Sian.
New Wuxia Pian - Rise of the Action Director
Before 1968, the concept of an action director didn't exist in the general public and was often an ill-defined concept in the Hong Kong film industry. Today, an action director is defined as a fight or stunt coordinator who is given partial or full control of an action sequence, including camera placement and editing. In Hollywood, this is a largely foreign concept where fight coordinators remain subject to the demands of a film's director, but in Hong Kong action filmmaking it became common procedure to have the action director assume nearly complete control of an action scene. This couldn't happen, however, until the role of an action director had been filled.
In early wuxia pian, fight sequences were often devised and practiced by the actors, moments before shooting. Trained stunt actors were rarely used and no fighting specialist was assigned. This was changed by Hong Kong's longest-running film series starring Kwan Tak-hing as martial arts folk hero Wong Fei-hung. The series, which ran from 1949 to 1970 and encompassed nearly 100 episodes, was the progenitor of the open-handed kung fu movie and provided a training ground for future genre talent. One of the series' regular stunt extras was Lau Kar-leung (a.k.a. Liu Chia-liang), himself a martial descendent of Wong Fei-hung and well versed in Hung Gar kung fu. Another was Tang Chia, a Peking opera student of Simon Yuen (father of famed action director Yuen Wo-ping). As movies demanded better swordplay action, this pair would adapt their experience with the Wong Fei Hung serial to the wuxia genre and in doing so become the world's first real action directors.
Tang and Lau got their start as a fight choreography team working on mid-1960s wuxia movies such as The Jade Bow (1966). But this was just a warm up, as the action was stilted and old fashioned. It wasn't until they began working for Chang Cheh that their action really began to evolve, particularly from One-Armed Swordsman onward. Drawing heavily on the realism of Japan's samurai screen fighting and old Hollywood swashbuckling, Chang Cheh and his new action directing team began to infuse wuxia swordplay with increased physical dynamics and levels of bloodshed.
Although they predominately worked with Chang early on, Tang and Lau also worked with other directors. One of these was Ching Gong, father of leading wuxia pian action director Tony Ching Siu-tung, and director of The Twelve Gold Medallions (1970). In their collaboration with Ching Gong on 1968's The Sword of Swords, Tang and Lau earned their first action directing screen credit, thus setting a new precedent for all future martial arts movies. In the mid-1970s, Lau Kar-leung went on to direct his own kung fu movies. Tang Chia, however, remained Shaw Brothers top wuxia pian action director. After Chang Cheh switched to more kung fu-styled movies, Tang began working primarily with Chor Yuen. During a career that spanned over 20 years, he crafted sword-fighting action for over 40 of Hong Kong's leading wuxia pian releases.
Sammo Hung's Moon Warriors
Tang Chia and Lau Kar-leung were not the only action directors to emerge from the '60s. King Hu's success with Come Drink with Me was due in part to the film's brilliant swordplay (for its day), as crafted by the team of Han Ying-chieh and a stout young man fresh from Peking Opera school named Sammo Hung. Hung didn't stay with Shaw Brothers long and as most Hong Kong movie fans know, he became far better known as a kung fu action director and star. Yet he continued to choreograph most of King Hu's early wuxia pian and years later made a return to the genre in 1987 by choreographing Ann Hui's The Romance of Book and Sword. During Hong Kong's early '90s martial arts movie blitz, Hung acted as action director on four more wuxia pian and directed two, including Moon Warriors (1992) and Blade of Fury (1993), starring Ti Lung and Collin Chou (a.k.a. Sing Ngai) as swordsmen and reformists, struggling against a crumbling Qing government.
Click on for Part Two and our list of recommendations...