Jul 9, 2014

Next Steps: Martial Arts Movies

The BFI's season of Chinese Cinema is currently running a selection of martial arts and swordplay films.  They've made some fine choices of what to show, but their selection does feel a bit like an exercise in box ticking.  There aren't many films that people familiar with martial arts cinema won't have seen a hundred times.  I'm not against that, it's always good to draw newcomers in to a genre and I recognise that the BFI has to bow to some commercial pressure and that, for instance, Drunken Master's name recognition will bring fans and newbies alike to the screenings.

With all that in mind, here are some suggestions for where to go next if you're getting in to martial arts movies based on this season.  I'm not going to suggest any hugely obscure films because I want to choose films that people CAN find and see, and because my own knowledge of martial arts movies, even after 15 years as a fan, is hardly encyclopedic.  If there's anything you love and think I've missed in this article, please mention it in the comments below or tweet them to me @24FPSUK.

A Touch Of Zen
Here's where I confess a great sin. I've not actually seen A Touch Of Zen.  I've been meaning to get around to it for years, and will soon, but that doesn't mean I can't suggest a few directions to go in following on from it...

Cheng Pei-pei in Come Drink With Me
Five years before A Touch Of Zen, director King Hu had made a star of then 19 year old Cheng Pei-pei in the Shaw Brothers produced Come Drink With Me.  It's a pretty typical story with proficient martial artist Golden Swallow taking further training so she can rescue her brother from a group of bandits but it's incredibly stylishly shot by Hu and Cheng Pei-pei is one of those rare people who is immediately, self-evidently, a movie star.  Her martial arts prowess is strong (though the choreography, in keeping with the Shaw films of the time, is less intricate and slower than it would become), but even outside of that and her obvious beauty she simply has an ability to draw a camera whenever she's in frame.  From here you could go on to more of Pei-pei's films; she played Golden Swallow again in a sequel named for her character, and The Lady Hermit is another excellent martial arts film in much the same mould. Latterly, Cheng moved into more dramatic roles, beginning with Alex Law's Painted Faces.

Another way to go from A Touch of Zen is towards later swordplay films.  It influenced many well known films that are represented in the season, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which, incidentally, features Cheng Pei-pei) and Hero.  Beyond these, Hu's own late period film The Swordsman and Ronny Yu's The Bride With White Hair are fine choices, as is Raymond Lee and Ching Siu-tung's New Dragon Gate Inn; an all star remake of Hu's Dragon Inn.  Lesser known is Tsui Hark's Green Snake; a wonderful, hypnotic oddity which wraps its martial arts sequences in a sensually told legend starring Maggie Cheung and Joey Wang, I highly recommend tracking that one down.


Classic Kung Fu Stars
The three people generally recognised as major kung fu stars in the west; Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li are all deservedly represented in the BFI season.  In Lee's case there is little to add, as his greatest film and his most popular (Fist Of Fury and Enter The Dragon) are both showing.  In the case of Jackie, Jet Li and the many other great stars who aren't so well represented in the season, there are many directions in which you could head after coming out of the BFI's selections.

Jackie is represented in the season by his breakout success Drunken Master (directed by the great Yuen Woo-ping), its brilliant sequel and his trend-setting modern martial arts movie Police Story, but in choosing these three films there is much about the clown prince of kung fu that the BFI have left unexplored.  Perhaps most surprising is the lack of any of the 'three brothers' films; an unrelated trilogy toplining Chan and his opera school brothers Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao.  Project A and Meals on Wheels are joyous and freewheeling; Chan at his finest as star and director, while Dragons Forever is a harder edged film, directed by Hung, who always brings out a tougher and more serious side of Jackie.  All three are among the truly essential martial arts films of any era.  It's also a shame not to see either one of Jackie's Armour of God series, these are his take on the Indiana Jones films and the second; Operation Condor, which took two years to shoot, is especially outlandish fun.  Fans might also want to check out one of his more dramatic roles; say Heart of the Dragon, Miracles or Crime Story.  Jackie is clearly no DeNiro (well, it's a closer run thing these days) but he is a rather more versatile talent than you might think.

Jet Li also has three starring roles in the season, in the first two Once Upon A Time In China films and in Zhang Yimou's visually stunning Hero.  All three show off Li's skills to fine effect and are a good jumping off point into Li's further filmography.  Especially recommended in the light of this season is Fist of Legend, a remake in which Li takes on Bruce Lee's iconic role from Fist of Fury and which will make an intriguing double bill with the earlier film.  Again I have to confess that, despite being impressed with everything I have seen him in, Li is someone whose work I still have to dig into in further detail, but now let's address some people who aren't so well represented in the season.

Sammo Hung in Eastern Condors
For my money Sammo Hung is the overlooked genius of the classic period of martial arts cinema.  A great star; a great choreographer; a great director; adept as a performer in both comedic and dramatic roles. I'm always disappointed to see him, in the West, so overshadowed by Jackie and by Bruce Lee.  Hung's greatest achievement as a filmmaker is probably his pair of Wing Chun films; Warriors Two and The Prodigal Son.  The latter may well be my favourite martial arts film of all time, and boasts fantastic performances from Yuen Biao and Lam Ching Ying as a naive martial artist and the opera star who takes him on as a pupil.  The mid film fight between Lam Ching Ying and Frankie Chan, emphasising the close quarters style of Wing Chun, remains one of the most breathtaking I've ever seen.  Outside classical kung fu films Hung also made the Dirty Dozen influenced Vietnam movie Eastern Condors, which has a star packed cast and some of Hung's best action (he slimmed down significantly for the part).  It's notable for several reasons; being perhaps the only Hong Kong martial arts film to star an Oscar winner (Haing S. Ngor); a prison camp scene later replicated for John Woo's Bullet In The Head and an extraordinary bad guy performance from Yuen Wah, who moves like no one else on Earth.  In recent times Hung has diversified in to character parts, demanding less action, but in Wilson Yip's Saat Po Long (or Kill Zone) he proved he could still hold his own with Donnie Yen.  Sammo has made dozens of films, and from his directorial debut Iron Fisted Monk to supernatural comedy Spooky Encounters to the Western influenced Millionaires Express and even up to his recent work, they all have something to offer.

Sammo Hung seems to have been a loyal friend as a filmmaker, and throughout the 80's he developed a stock company, formed largely of his opera school brothers (the Seven Little Fortunes).  For my money two members of this stock company really stood out and deserve to be better known by the wider movie watching public: Yuen Biao and Lam Ching Ying. 

Yuen Biao was the youngest of the Seven Little Fortunes and cut his teeth working as a stunt player in Jackie and Sammo's early films (in Jackie's early directorial efforts like The Young Master and Dragon Lord he can be seen doubling for a wide array of actors in some of their most acrobatic moves and on more than one occasion you can catch him doubling for his own opponent in fights), but he's also a decent actor, with a bit more of an everyman quality than some of his peers, something that Sammo uses brilliantly in both The Prodigal Son and Eastern Condors.  He generally worked in supporting roles, but he's always one of the best things in any film he appears in, and the moments you'll be picking your jaw up off the floor tend to be because of him.

Lam Ching-ying in Mr Vampire
If Yuen Biao was one of the most underrated martial artists of the classic period then Lam Ching Ying, as well as being a great kung fu player, was the most underrated actor in these films.  Again, this is something that Sammo Hung recognised in his best films, giving Lam the most challenging roles, including that of gay kung fu master Leung Yee-tai in The Prodigal Son.  In the English dub the camp voice derails the performance, but in Cantonese Lam's dignified performance carries the film.  Lam's talent brings a down to earth centre to the most outlandish of films, the fact he treats the material seriously means that Mr Vampire, with its hopping vampires and Buddhist magic that are so unfamiliar to Western audiences, doesn't provoke the derision that it otherwise might have.  That said, the same film also mines this quality in Lam's performance to great comic effect.  It's terribly sad that Lam Ching-ying's career was cut short by liver cancer.  He would have had a great third act in him as a character player.

Aside from these there are many other martial arts move figures worth investigating.  Donnie Yen has been a big star for a long time and I was surprised not to see his best known films Iron Monkey and Ip Man included in this selection from BFI.  My personal recommendations would be Saat Po Long (as recommended in the Sammo Hung section) and the film released over here by Hong Kong Legends as In The Line Of Duty which is, confusingly, actually In The Line Of Duty 4 (not that it matters) and which also features a stunningly kickass role for Cynthia Khan.  

Martial arts cinema isn't always a star's game and it's also worth investigating directors and action directors whose styles you find interesting.  Yuen Woo-ping gained a lot of popularity in the west from The Matrix and his distinguished directorial career takes in beloved titles like Drunken Master and Iron Monkey as well as the aforementioned In The Line Of Duty 4, Sammo Hung's star vehicle Magnificent Butcher (which does for Hung Ga what Sammo would later do for Wing Chun) and a pretty stupid, but immensely fun Under Siege knock off called Red Wolf, which I have a residual affection for because it was my first HKL dvd.  Also worth mentioning is Ching Siu-tung, but we'll come to him in the next section.


Where Are The Women?
Michelle Yeoh in Magnificent Warriors
I'm holding out some hope that the kickass ladies of Chinese martial arts and action cinema will have their own focus later in the season, but this selection of films is still a fine excuse to spin off and investigate some of them.  Three generations are represented in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the aforementioned Cheng Pei-pei, Michelle Yeoh and a then unknown Zhang Ziyi.  Ziyi is also in Hero and The Banquet during this season, but Yeoh, one of the great female stars of martial arts cinema, is otherwise under-represented.  I would suggest starting with her starring role as a whip wielding rebel in World War 2 in the exactly as advertised by the title Magnificent Warriors.  Yeoh, a dancer rather than a martial artist, learns her moves by simply mimicking action, but she executes them brilliantly, has a go for broke spirit and is an effortlessly charismatic presence.  This is one of her finest films, but there is a lot of choice.  Not strictly a martial arts film, but set around that world, is the true story drama The Stunt Woman, featuring what remains Yeoh's best performance.  Among her pure martial arts films Police Assassins (also featuring Cynthia Rothrock, who did all her best work in Hong Kong) stands out, as does her leading role in Yuen Woo-ping's Wing Chun, which tells the story of the woman who invented the style.  Perhaps her most viscerally impressive hour came opposite Jackie Chan in Police Story 3.  She more than holds her own against an on form Chan and it is her, not him, who has the most impressive stunt in the film when she jumps a motorcycle on to a moving train.

Another face of martial arts cinema, though she never, until later in her career, did many of her own stunts, was Maggie Cheung.  In the BFI season she is magnificent, a vision, in Hero, and she's well known for her appearance in Wong Kar-wai's wuxia film Ashes of Time, but her heritage in the genre goes back to an appearance in Police Story as Jackie's accident prone girlfriend (the shot of her getting thrown through [stunt] plate glass is real).  She also appears in the aforementioned Green Snake, and has a seductive scene in New Dragon Gate Inn in which Brigitte Lin uses a sword to strip her of her clothing.  Also worth catching is Sammo Hung's Moon Warriors, but Cheung's finest pre-Hero martial arts outings came opposite Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui in Ching Siu-tung's downright bizarre The Heroic Trio and its sequel Executioners.  These are among the strangest of martial arts films, but their madness and the chemistry between the actors is infectious.

A particular sub genre of Chinese action cinema is the girls with guns film and one girl who did quite a few of them, following a demure appearance as the girlfriend in Mr Vampire, was Moon Lee.  She made A LOT of films with Angel or Angels in the title and it's tough to tell which are the official entries in the series and which are simply knock offs, but Lee is fun in all those that I've seen.  She's also well worth seeing opposite Yuen Biao in Tsui Hark's fantastical Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain.

Few, if any, female stars have such established careers in martial arts cinema as the male stars and those who do tend not to stay in as long, often thanks to the convention in Hong Kong that many actresses retire from the screen after they get married (this caused a hiatus in Michelle Yeoh's career).  Some do stay in, like the American born Cynthia Rothrock, fantastic in Police Assassins (also known as Yes Madam) and with Yuen Biao in Above The Law, but she has the worst taste of almost any major martial arts star and has made an incredible amount of crap.  The stinkiest I've seen is a Hong Kong production; Prince Of The Sun.  Another woman who stuck around for a while was Brigitte Lin, whose ethereal beauty suited the otherworldly nature of wuxia perfectly.  She's iconic in The Bride With White Hair and well worth seeing in the already mentioned likes of The Swordsman series, Ashes of Time and New Dragon Gate Inn.

I could go on, but then this article would have no end, and it needs one.  I'm no expert when it comes to martial arts, wuxia and Hong Kong action films and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface here (I, for instance, need to see MANY more Shaw Brothers films), but I hope that if you are relatively new to the genre I have given you a few titles you want to investigate and a few ideas on how you can spin off this BFI season and discover some wonderfully entertaining cinema.  I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions below or on Twitter.

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