Why Wuxia?

I admit, there is a lot of talk about wuxia on this site: wuxia dramas, wuxia films, wuxia literature. I guess I never explained the appeal of wuxia for me. Well, here goes.

It is about more than the swords (although the swords are nice!).  First of all, let’s see what we’re talking about. Here is how the Almighty Wikipedia defines wuxia:

Wuxia (simplified Chinese: 武侠; traditional Chinese: 武俠; pinyinwǔxiá[ùɕjǎ]) is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to different art forms like Chinese operamanhua (Chinese comics), films, television series, and video games. Wuxia is a component of popular culture for many Chinese-speaking communities worldwide.

The word “wuxia” is a compound word composed from the words wu (武), which means “martial”, “military”, or “armed” and xia (俠), meaning “honorable”, “chivalrous”, or “hero”. A martial artist (or pugilist) who follows the code of Xia is often referred to as a xiake(俠客, lit: “follower of xia”, “hiệp khách”) or youxia (游俠, “wandering xia”, “du hiệp”). In some translated works of wuxia, the pugilist is sometimes termed as a “swordsman” although he may not necessarily wield a sword.

So when you say Chinese and swords, most people think of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; Source: http://www.fanpop.com/spots/crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon/images/2264791/title

Or Hero.

Hero; Source: http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800020969/photo/520515

Or House of the Flying Daggers.

House of the Flying Daggers; Source: http://caines.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/house-of-flying-daggers-zhang-yimou/

Now, I’m not mad at Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou. I’m always up for seeing them do their thing on the big screen. But I found there is a big difference between wuxia on the big screen and wuxia on the small screen, and I think that’s where a lot of my interest falls. The television series, by their nature, allows for the development of a convoluted plot, especially with series that are based on wuxia fiction. And a result, the action is less important than the development of characters and narrative. Now, if you’ve seen those wuxia series from the 1980s, you could say that the wuxia series has too much time on its hands. 30, 40, 50 episodes require a certain amount of commitment. And there is a lot of wistful monologues where characters wax poetic about what they should or shouldn’t do. But I still love them.

My first wuxia series was Return of the Condor Heroes (1983) . While it stars a young Andy Lau, what really captured my attention was not the couple that flouts the rules, but Huang Rong. I was astounded that her claim to fame was her cleverness. To me, she stole the show. I was intrigued that she was allowed to have so many talents AND never lose her femininity. And she’s not a bad swordsperson in her own right. The only person rivalling her in the series was her FATHER!!! Dude only appears a handful of times, but his surliness is just delicious. Whatever you might think of Huang Yaoshi, he does what you want EVERY father who happens to be a martial arts master to do: teach. his. daughter. martial arts. If you are going to send her out into the world, at least makes sure she can defend herself! I was so focused on these two, I practically forgot about that other love story.

This got me thinking about masculinity and femininity in wuxia.  A lot of what people focus on, especially if we take the Wikipedia tact, is that the hero is a MAN. I love the fact that there are so many women running around wuxia. And they aren’t falling down;  helpless, hapless women either. They run the gamut on both sides of good and evil. They carry swords with their well-manicured hands and well-coiffed hairstyles. They are WOMEN with swords, not women pretending to be men (which is different from disguising oneself as a man for a purpose). But they are not always carrying swords, yet they figure significantly into the plots and not just as the love interest.  And there are different kinds of women too! I’m trying explore what I call a female heroic tradition. Does it exist? If so, what does it look like? Is heroism itself a concept only applied to men? What defines heroism for ladies? Sure, they can be the philosophical light, but ladies can effect the beatdown too! And even without a sword, they can cause trouble as members of royalty. I’m interested because a lot of other women I know are interested. I think it is limiting to think that women can’t be heroic and bring something different to heroism.

Laughing In The Wind

I’m also interested in the men, or as like to call them, SWP: Swordsmen With Problems. These are a crazy lot: alcoholics, womanizers, depressed souls who suffer from low self-esteem, rejected by the women they love, can’t communicate with the women they love, can’t get rid of women who love them, unable to assume the obligations laid at their feet, guys who have unresolved father issues. Oh, but they are talented martial artists. So it’s an interesting combination. But not all men in wuxia wield a sword. Everyone knows that the scholars, monks, tricksters, and guys who can bring a good plan to the table are indispensable. So heroism, once again, takes on a different flavor.  I’m also interested in the relationships between men, the lengths and limits of brotherhood and something I like to call male emotionality. These dudes cry. All. The. Time. And it doesn’t take away from their masculinity. What’s up with that?

The Handsome Siblings

Put them together, and you get my third interest: men and women. I’ve seen some really equitable relationships between men and women in wuxia dramas. I’ve seen both men and women deviate from their “expected’ societal roles. Of course, I’ve seen some relationships that are a hot mess, but hey, they keep in interesting. Put this against the backdrop of some Chinese history, and it is very interesting to me.

Ok, and then there are the swords, the battles, the clothes. (I couldn’t resist).

Young Warriors of the Yang Clan

So that’s why there is so much wuxia on the site. I’m working on a book that explores this, and will occaisionally use the blog to work through my ideas.

YesAsia Order #1

Ok, not really the first YesAsia order, but I thought it would make an interesting post to see what I’m getting and why. Also, this presents a nice change from me complaining about how Netflix has completely ruined our relationship by not having my Asian stuff!

First, let’s talk about what I’m NOT getting: the 94-episode Three Kingdoms released in 2010. Thanks, China, for not loving me. Why no subtitles in English? WHY?! Really, why make it region free (not like I care) but not have English subtitles? And I can’t do the various OTHER internet ways of accessing this (read: quasi-legal). Standards are too high when it comes to wuxia series. Can’t do parts.

So, let’s move on to what I am getting:

Reign of Assassins: You can’t be surprised by this. Michelle Yeoh and Jung Woo Sung. Co-directed by John Woo. I’ve been waiting for this, not just for the action but for the domestic story. It could be an interesting twist on the “I don’t wanna fight any more” plot, because it’s a woman saying it. Usually, we see swordsmen become beleaguered by the life of a hero. They retire to some cave, or become a monk on a mountain somewhere. Which is fine, but when it is a female lead, inevitably part of her domestic life is going to involve becoming romantically involved with a guy. Where else would the tension come from when her gang comes looking for her trying to drag her back into the life? The stakes are different for ladies, and I’m interested in how they handle this.

Shaolin: Once again, this is a given, ever since I saw the trailer for it. AND it’s not JUST because it has Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and some guy named Jackie Chan in it. Corey Yuen does the martial arts choreography and it’s written by Benny Chan. Yeah, I know we’ve seen the destruction of the Shaolin temple many times, but I’m never opposed to revisiting it, especially if someone can bring something new. Plus, it looks like there may be some engagement with the modernization of China. At least that’s what I think of when I see cars and guns versus monks.

The Lost Bladesman: Me, absolutely giddy with delight at the prospect of seeing Donnie Yen play Guan Yu. You had me at Guan Yu. You know he’s your favorite of the Three Brothers. I want Liu Bei to be a better man than he is, and Chang Fei is just cray cray. Now, there is the potential for disappointment here, especially since it will invite comparisons to Red Cliff. You know my aim here is not to tell you what’s “good” and what’s not. I’m just telling you what I like. And I like Donnie Yen. A LOT. Plus, Guan Yu seems to have more potential for exploration as a character. I do want to see him do more than wield the blade and do that move with the beard. I’ve heard some less than stellar things about the actual plot, but hey, I’m getting it ANYWAY!

True Legend: Yes, not just because of Vincent Zhao but because of Zhao PLUS Yuen Wo Ping! Ok, I do have a thing for Zhao and it has everything to do with the emotional roller-coaster he took me on as Chu Zhaonan in the wuxia series Seven Swordsmen. STILL not over that ending! I think that he could be a viable go-to guy for action and wuxia films, but no one seems to go to him. Putting him with Yuen Wo Ping seems like it will be a treat. Yeah, I’ve heard some less than enthusiastic things about it, but hey. I’m getting it ANYWAY! I’m really looking for another treatment of the Beggar So legend than Steven Chow’s stuff.

Ok, so that seems to be a good deal of wuxia-related stuff. But that’s not all I’m getting!

Turning Point: This is has been in my saved cart for a while, and I wondered why I put it in there in the first place. Then I remembered: Michael Tse, of Young and Dangerous fame. You know how attached to Young and Dangerous I am, and I really like this guy. Plus I heard good things about the television show, EU, on which the film is based.. And it has Anthony Wong AND Francis Ng, each with crazy haircuts, which means the potential for their portrayal of off-the-chain characters is high.

Stool Pigeon: I’m always looking for a good crime drama, and given that this is directed by Dante Lam, who also directed Beast Stalker, I’m willing to give it a try.  I always love to see Nick Cheung do serious roles, because the first time I saw him was as the wise-cracking security official in Andrew Lau’s The Duel. Who knew he’d go from that to things like this? Plus it looks like Nicholas Tse isn’t as pretty as he usually is in films. I’ll deal with it.

And to round it out, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart:  Who doesn’t love Louis Koo? And I particularly like him when he’s being silly and romantic. Pair him up with Daniel Wu in a Johnnie To vehicle, and this could be great.

So that’s it. That’s what I’m getting. Once my shipment arrives, I will regale you with my opinions, because I know you are so looking forward to that.

Video Credits:

Reign of Assassins, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-i4yVbYX98I

Shaolin, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYV9thH5RhE

The Lost Bladesman, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sA2NETUFkc0

True Legend, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNzRP0ZSKzw

Turning Point, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5EMxEVFE2E

Stool Pigeon, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-6NX_ZnCLM

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh0gGbDf6XM

Really Old-School CSI: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

This is obligatory: Andy Lau is the MAN!!! Even when he’s in sucky stuff, you forgive him (at least I did for Resurrection of the Dragon), because for every bad movie he does, there is a decent one coming around the bend. He is the hardest working man in Hong Kong!

Tsui Hark: let’s be real. The man gave us Once Upon A Time in China. But he also gave us Seven Swords (the movie). He can be a little uneven, inconsistent. So in the months before the release of Detective Dee, I was nervous. Can Tsui Hark be the Tsui Hark that we love? It was all hush-hush, with really bad quality video being leaked out. But I decided that I was going to have faith in him…..

AND HE DID!! This is the Tsui Hark we know and love! He is absolutely in his element: using cracktastic special effects with an over the top Saturday matinée story that makes sense!  You go!

I really liked this movie. Is it Citizen Kane? No, and it’s absolutely not meant to be. This is why people (me) fell in love with movies in the first place. The story is not terribly obvious, the special effects make sense, and he does not waste Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka Fai in this. Yayz!

Running Out of Time (1999)

Watching Overheard has put me in the mind of some old-school Lau Ching Wan!  Let’s revisit the Double Lau-Lau Ching Wan and Andy Lau!  All month long, post your favorite comments about Running Out of Time!

Ok, I’ve watched the movie, and it just makes me fall for Andy Lau all over again. (Yes, I’ve got a BIG heart!).  I recall that this was my first Lau Ching Wan film, and instantly made me like him.  It holds up well. I thought I remembered what happened, and completely forgot about the Andy in drag scene.  Classic!

What I really like about watching it again is that I catch things I missed the first time, you know, because Andy Lau’s light is so bright.  But it’s a really smart film.  And unlike so many films these days, it doesn’t bog you down with backstory. Get with the program, and catch up!  You gotta watch this film to get it.  It doesn’t treat the audience like idiots.

So, watchu think?

Is Nicholas Tse This Generation’s Andy Lau?

Quite the intriguing question! I’ve been thinking about this lately, and my conclusion is…..no. At least not yet, but I think he may be on his way.

Let’s look: Andy Lau has a crazy successful music career, done his stint on the tv dramas, is a venerated actor and is just easy on the eyes overall.

Nicholas Tse has, from what I can tell, a good music career, done his stint on the tv dramas (and still is doing the tv dramas–good job!), is a good actor and, well, you’ve seen him. (Apparently so has all of Asia, having been voted as Asia’s Most Handsome Celebrity, according to a story on gokpop.com.

My point is that both are multitaskers who multitask well.  Now, Andy Lau’s been around a while (luv u!), so he’s had time to develop quite the film career.  And anyone who’s seen a good sprinkling of his films know that he’s equal opportunity, meaning that he’ll star in anything:  from Infernal Affairs to Resurrection of the Dragon (don’t get me started). Andy Lau works so much I’d half expect him to show up as a toy in my cereal, and not sure that hasn’t happened somewhere in the world. Nicholas Tse needs time, he needs his own Infernal Affairs. I don’t know if he’s had it yet. Some might point to Bodyguards and Assassins. But he has time. Ok, it’s no secret that Nic Tse is my boo. I’d watch him in lots of stuff, LOTS of stuff.   I’m  willing to wait to see what he has to offer in the future.


Dead on Arrival

Maybe if I get it out I can let it go.  I’m not down on remakes, just bad ones.  Let’s take some time to see what the remake means.  It means that you are taking something that is already out there, and “reimagining” it.  Fine, cool, but you have to be ready for the inevitable comparison to previous versions, that’s the price you pay.  Pony up!

Let me start by saying I do find things to appreciate in the filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.  I can’t deny the inherent “coolness” of Tarantino’s stuff.  I have found myself on many a day contemplating whether I am the shepherd or the tyranny of evil  men.  There are still slots open for my own personal set of Crazy 88s. And no one will be able to convince me that Daniel Day-Lewis was not robbed in Gangs of New York. He didn’t play Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, he WAS Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. 

My issue comes with the fact that I can’t watch The Departed and not think of Infernal Affairs, and I can’t watch Kill Bill Vol. 1 and not think of Lady Snowblood.  Let’s take Marty first.  I tried.  I tried to watch The Departed.  I gave it the college try. And then I had just turn it off.  To me, Infernal Affairs is this film built on a certain kind of subtlety.  It doesn’t rely on accent laden dialogue to get the point across.  It’s a complicated elegance that The Departed entirely lacks.  For example, the scene where there is a near miss at the movie theater.  In Andrew Lau’s film, there is a building tension when Tony Leung follows Andy Lau down the corridor and around blind corners.  There corridors are empty, adding to the tension. Will he turn around?  And then the cell phone rings, its sound echoing off the sides of the building.  In Scorsese’s film, Leonardo DiCaprio chases Matt Damon down a crowed city street, to a side alley.  The scene is shorter, and lacks the tension found in Lau’s film.   

While my issues with The Departed have a lot to do with aesthetics, I’ve saved a special place of dislike for Kill Bill, Vol.1.  Others more eloquent than I have taken the film to task for various and sundry reasons, but let me add more.  My primary issue with Tarantino’s film is that many American audiences look at it and go, “Gee, that’s cool.”  My response is:  that ain’t new.  There are women wielding swords all over Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean film.  What is especially troublesome is that Tarantino appropriates from Lady Snowblood and in doing so takes the whole revenge plot out of context.  He leaves behind the whole backdrop of shifting political realities in Japan, particularly the conscription of people and misuse of taxes, which underwrites the reasons why the main character has to go on the revenge quest in the first place. And context is key.  

Let’s talk a little more about context.  If Tarantino really wanted to revolutionize the genre, he would have cast someone not white not blond not blue-eyed as a protagonist in a yellow jumpsuit who beats everyone down, with no status as sidekick, no need for a buddy, and no casting him/her as the villain. He would have culturally corrected the horrendous mistake in casting that sent Bruce Lee to Hong Kong in the first place.  But nooooooooooo.

For people who have seen the Asian films that inform these films, but The Departed and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 are dead on arrival.