In Wuxia, Princess is Not a Bad Word: Nirvana in Fire

Nihuang, Nirvana in Fire
Nihuang, Nirvana in Fire

Many people equate princess culture with Disney, but the princesses in wuxia popular culture defy those expectations. The Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire counters mainstream princess culture by drawing from the tradition of strong women in wuxia.

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(Black) Man With The Iron Fists: RZA’s Foray Into Kung Fu Film
Poster of RZA’s film Man With the Iron Fists

This week saw the release of first images and the official trailer of RZA’s long-awaited homage to kung-fu film, Man With the Iron Fists. Not only does the film represent a new chapter in the long love-affair between African Americans and Asian culture, it reminds us how long that love affair has been.

I think some people are anticipating this more than others. In one online community, reaction was distinctly muted.  Some predict that this is  going to be a crappy movie. We all know that if we could really determine if a film was crappy just from an image or a trailer, most of us would have fuller wallets.  Bad films can have talented people attached to them; good films can get marred by the skewed vision of a few.

I’m dismayed by such a reaction, given the trajectory of the Hong Kong film industry, a film industry that owes quite a lot to kung fu films and wuxia, two genres that are routinely characterized as “low culture.”  However, the elite directors over which critics fawn routinely cite their work in and the influence of those two genres.  Poshek Fu notes:  “As Ang Lee recently revealed, the shaping influences of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were the numerous Shaw Brothers costume dramas and musicals he watched as he was growing up in Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s” (1).  Let’s not forget where those Hong Kong Bruce Lee films came from.

Not only did some of the most significant Hong Kong film directors get their start in kung fu films at the studios of Golden Harvest and the Shaw Brothers, they did so in films most of us have never seen. Let’s face it: many of these films are nowhere near Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon material.  But the allowed today’s talent to hone their craft, and created significant followings around the world.

One of the most significant followings is among African Americans in the United States.  Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua notes that in contrast to the American audience for action film, presumed to be “young, white, working-class males,” “the black martial arts audience. . .  complicates, if not transcends, the class, gender and generational limitations of action films’ traditional spectators.  A broader cross-section of the black community is attracted to this film genre” (200).

Cha-Jua refers to film scholar David Desser’s explanation for the appeal:  “He advances two interconnected arguments: First, besides blaxploitation, kung fu films were the only films with nonwhite heroes and heroines; second, they concerned an ‘underdog of color, often fighting against the colonialist enemies, white culture, or the Japanese'” (200).

So we can’t be surprised at the Afro-Asian connection in kung fu films. What may be surprising is what RZA has done with Man with the Iron Fists.  I remember reading when he went to China to film. Not the place you expect to see a black man. Filming a movie. A kung fu movie. If you look at the cast, you see all kinds of folk involved; Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Quentin Tarantino.  If nothing else, this is a new chapter in that it represents, to a certain degree, African Americans articulating their own response to Asian popular culture in film.

Will this film be just another example of what some see as the rampant commercialization and low quality of contemporary Hong Kong film? Maybe. Or maybe it will take all the stuff you love about Saturday afternoon kung fu and raise to a new, ridiculously crazy level. Is it going to push some buttons about race, gender, violence and appropriation? Sure will! Have you seen the trailer?

The poster and trailer invite commentary, but let’s not pretend that any of this is new and, more importantly, not part of the legacy of kung fu films.  C’mon, we all know what we are here for.


Fu, Poshek. “Introduction: The Shaw Brothers Diasporic Cinema,” China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,  2008).  1-26.

Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita.  “Black Audiences, Blaxploitation and Kung Fu Films, and challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity,” China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,  2008). 199-223.

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,


The Lost Bladesman,

True Legend,

Turning Point,

Stool Pigeon,

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,

Tracing Shadow (2009)

I can’t exactly say I like Francis Ng. But, weirdly, I do look forward to the crazy characters he plays. Need a weird, awkward, alcoholic, pathological anti-social pyschopath? Then Francis Ng is your guy! I first became aware of his unique talents in Young and Dangerous. Dude does not-right RIGHT!

So imagine my glee(?) when I heard he was teaming up with Marco Mak for Tracing Shadow, billed as a wuxia parody. To its credit, I think it is shot better than you would anticipate a dramedy of this kind to be. It’s pretty and the martial arts choreography, wire work and swordplay is better than I would have expected.

Francis Ng, Tracing Shadow, Credit: shadow

To be honest, you are not going to find anything new in this if you’ve seen even a sprinkling of wuxia films. It didn’t make me laugh out loud, but it did make me smile.  It wasn’t over the top crazy like mo lau tai wuxia comedies, but it had its fair share of subtle humor and just things that didn’t go together in a weird kind of way. Like that impromptu jam between Ng’s character and the eventual object of his affection, in a brothel, to what sounds like a fusion of traditional Chinese music and hard rock. Yeah.  And there THREE crazy things waiting for you in the middle, but unlike other people, I’ll let you find them for yourself. You’ll know when you see them. And THAT made me smile, that I was able to recognize what, or more accurately, WHO, they were supposed to be.   See, watching all that wuxia pays off in the end! Another redeeming factor is that Jaycee Chan is actually decent in this. I’ve seen him in other things, and I don’t blame him because he’s been in roles that didn’t really fit him.  But here, he is actually kinda charming. Good job!

And while I’m thinking about it, can people who write about films please stop heralding the end of Hong Kong film with EVERY film that does not meet some high expectation? Good grief. If I had a dollar for every film somebody said was killing Hong Kong film, I’d be rich. Chill out. Not every film is supposed to be super great. I’m not mad at this. I save that for things have truly no redeeming value whatsoever, and when you think about it, that’s pretty rare.

Wuxia Woman, Where Are You?

So, it may seem that I’ve abandoned my love of Chinese wuxia, having seen the bright lights of the kdrama Queen Seondeok and the sexy manly of Korean idol bands like SS501 (oh yes, a WHOLE entry devoted to them is coming)…..

Fret not, I’m still down with my wuxia! I thought people might get a little sick of me continuing to wax poetic about Zhuge Liang, because I can talk all day long about Romance of the Three Kingdoms!  I teach an Asian film and lit class, and that time is rolling around again for the biannual showing of Red Cliff, Parts 1 and 2.  I did watch Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame awhile back, and was pleased, just haven’t got around to putting my thoughts down.

But the historical kdrama and the Chinese wuxia series are closely related to my interests: women you don’t want to mess with, and talented handsome  men who tag along! (How many times do I gotta tell y’all about applying to be my own personal Hwarang?  Then again, I have to think about what function a contemporary Hwarang would have….and do they need a health plan?). So I need a basis for comparison. Plus, the Chinese series are a little slow in coming….I’m not really interested in Chinese Paladin, and I’ve heard bad things about The Jade and the Pearl.  The last ones I watched were The Master of  Tai Chi (with my perennial boo, Vincent Zhao) and The Four (with, you know, those four guys).  While The Master of Tai Chi had several significant women’s roles, The Four had none.  Well, that’s not true, it did have one, but she’s kinda disappointing in the end. Ok, more than one, but it was still not the greatest for women. I keep meaning to hit the new versions of The Book and the Sword and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, but not yet.

I’ll be back in full effect once my YesAsia shipment gets here: most notably, the 95-episode treatment of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, True Legend, Reign of Assassins, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (DOOOONNNNIIIIEEEE!! I know, not wuxia, but it’s Donnie Yen!).

Don’t worry, I keep my eye on the wuxia world………

Women and Wuxia

Ok, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s about time I started my women and wuxia article.

This is what I have so far:

At the end of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, the novel posits a reimagining (?) of the woman warrior narrative, suggesting that the way of peace is ultimately better.  That may be true, but it seems to play down the huge legacy of woman warriors in the wuxia tradition. Beyond Mulan, wuxia is crowded with women who can (and often do) beat you down.  Yet in many of the wuxia films, these women are placed in oppositional roles related to men.  The implication of Kingston’s book seems to be that it’s too hard to be a woman warrior, or at best, being a woman and being a warrior are antithetical.

This notion is challenged, not so much by wuxia films, but by wuxia dramas.  I intend to examine three to show how this dichotomy is negotiated in ways that allow women to be women and warriors.  I’ll be looking at three figures:

The Kung Fu Couple:  The most recent incarnation of Eagle Shooting Heroes (2008) continues to represent the relationship between Huang Rong and Guo Jing as one that is more egalitarian than one might expect.  Not only is Huang Rong trained in kung fu by her father, for a good deal of the series, her ability surpasses Guo Jing’s. And yet, they remain a couple.  Hmmmmm.

Mothers and Sons: We’ve seen mothers teach their sons kung fu in movies such as Fong Sai Yuk, and this tradition extends to the wuxia series as well in Project A.

Kung Fu Matriarch: Probably one of the most intriguing examples of women and wuxia is in the series,The Young Warriors.  You’ve heard me wax poetic about Mama Yang, but what is really interesting is that she is a kung fu mama AND a regular mama.  She’ll correct your form, but also give you dating advice.  All while sporting those red robes, well-coiffed hairdo and perfectly manicured hands.

So this is where I am. Updates to follow!

Seven Swords (2005)

The first time I watched Seven Swords was on the heels of Tsui Hark’s series version.  At that time, I was so enthralled by Vincent Zhao’s Chu Zhaonan that I didn’t really pay too much attention to the movie, but with some time on my hands, I’m giving it my full attention, and I got questions.

The movie requires you to know this story, because it unfolds on the screen so fast.  First, funky looking people are whacking villagers, next thing you know, you’re in the mountains with meteors raining down from the sky.  But I did like some of the changes Hark made, like making Yuanyin female, because girls can carry swords too.

But I’m most intrigued by Donnie Yen’s Chu Zhaonan being Korean. He wasn’t Korean in the series, and since the world has not seen fit to provide an English translation of the novel both are based on, I have no idea if this is original or of Hark’s own making. In the wuxia genre, outsiders are generally from “the West” or anyplace other than where our heroes originate.  Does it make a difference that Donnie is Korean? I think so; it underscores what I guess is supposed to be the character’s aloof nature.  He’s all anti, which makes the whole supposed love-relationship with Green Pearl not very believable…..that is, unless you  know the story. He’s anti because he’s not from “here” but making him from Korea puts a new spin on who he is as a character. Is it supposed to make him more noble, or more distant?

What I miss is the exploration of the relationships among the brothers, and between Chu and Yang Yunchong. In the movie, they just seem to be hanging out on Mt. Tian, and you don’t get a sense of the brotherhood.

What does remain is the crackaliciousness of the villagers.  They are supposed to be righteous, but they would sell out their grandma. Upright swordsmen come to save you, and you accuse them of being traitors. Where’s the love? Village leader willing to whack his own daughter with no proof that she sold out the village.  People willing to whack kids (how low!).  So much for doing it for the people.

The Young Warriors: The Family That Battles Together…..

I recently finished Young Warriors (aka Young Warriors of the Yang Clan), and it epitomizes what I like about wuxia dramas.  Everyone fights!  This is the story of the fabulous Yang family, whose sons served the kingdom and eventually gave their lives, even when the fathead king made really bad decisions.  This legendary family is known for their loyalty, and apparently have been immortalized in wuxia drama before, but this version focuses on their lives before the questionable leadership of the king takes them all down.

Of course the sons are all upright, righteous guys who help the weak and support the people.  I know we are supposed to be in awe of the father and the seven brothers, but really, the mother, wives and girlfriends steal the show (they all dress amazingly well also!). Mama Yang is no joke!  She can literally beat her sons down if she had to.  But, for the most part, she doesn’t have to. She raised them right. What I find interesting is that she is also very maternal, and doesn’t lose her femininity in the process.  It’s an interesting combination. Even when they get into trouble with the king, she’s willing to stand up for them.  My favorite part is when the ‘lost son’ finds his way home, thinking he’s going to extract some revenge on his parents while honoring them at the same time?  So he’s antisocial to both, but saves the father from some assasination attempt.  He goes around talking smack to the mother, the other brothers don’t appreciate that.  Then she snaps out of it and basically tells him:  you have fulfilled your filial duty to your father, but not to me.  He shapes up quick, fast and in a hurry.  Later, the ladies don their own armor.  How cool is that!  And where can I get mine?

The gender dynamics are interesting in other ways as well. When the inevitable tragedy hits the family, and one of the sons, Wu Lang (I’m calling you out!), just can’t handle it, and decides he’s going to ignore his wife and become a monk.  While I have to say I’ve seen series often consign women to this fate, it was interesting to see it done to a man.   Wu Lang, pull it together!  

This is one of my favorites, and will definitely be included in my not-even-started projects on women in wuxia and the kung fu couple.