Tucked into the final weekend of the Los Angeles Film Festival is a miniprogram of three topnotch Asian features and a short — a luxury hors d’oeuvre to an epic retrospective of martial-arts films that the UCLA Film and Television Archive will present next year. The archive‘s programmer, Cheng Sim-Lim, asked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus to identify some of the classic films in the wu hsia (martial chivalry) subgenre that served as benchmarks for their new crossover hit.
Lee and Schamus were naturally drawn to efforts that, like theirs, brought an unusual level of visual or psychological sophistication to the stalwart heroics and acrobatic battle scenes that are typical of the form. All of the offerings in the program are in some sense revisionist works that either came late in the Hong Kong martial-arts cycle of the 1960s and ’70s, or contributed to its revved-up commercial revival in the ‘90s. A Touch of Zen (1971), directed by the late, legendary King Hu, centers upon one of the most indelible female sword-swingers of all time, Yang Hui-Zhen (played by Xu Feng), who was clearly a role model for Michelle Yeoh’s Yui Hsui-Lien in Crouching Tiger. In Hu‘s movie, Hui-Zhen is the last surviving representative of a clan of righteous rebels recruiting allies in a crumbling provincial town to fend off a small army of imperial enforcers. Although Lee, like Hu, is reputed to be a control freak, pre-planning every detail of every shot, the two filmmakers’ aesthetic temperaments are poles apart. Where Lee is an understated romantic, Hu was an elegant Confucian classicist. His characters are often sharply defined traditional types, constantly rearranging themselves into graceful new visual patterns. But they‘re psychologically opaque, and his work doesn’t exactly enfold the audience in a warm embrace. King Hu is like Ang Lee without the longing glances — a bit of a cold fish.
The emotional climate of Hu‘s films is thin, and hard to breathe for prolonged periods. At 40 minutes, Hu’s 1970 film Anger is a just about perfect length, the kung fu equivalent of a perfectly calibrated piece of chamber music, in which half a dozen characters are continuously in motion in a confined setting, in every possible martial combination, over the course of a single night. The film is amazingly compressed and economical, a miniature masterwork, but it‘s also curiously taxing — you feel you can’t relax for a second. It comes as a distinct relief to move on to the brawny, boisterous 1993 commercial kung fu picture Iron Monkey. Directed by action wizard Yuen Wo-Ping, who was the fight choreographer for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, the film is an old-fashioned martial-arts B movie executed with A-level skill and resources.
The magic of a foursquare genre exercise like Iron Monkey is its potential for triggering catharsis in the viewer. When the conflicting forces are externalized and personified, they can be resolved completely in a burst of furious action. We leave the theater feeling that a great weight has been lifted from our shoulders, and, for a few moments, the nagging ambiguities of our lives vanish. The earnest new-wave filmmaker Patrick Tam has no interest in that kind of reassurance. In Tam‘s 1980 wu hsia–noir debut picture, The Sword, the nominal protagonist, Li Mo-Ran (Adam Zheng), is no knightly paragon. Like some brooding oedipal gunfighter in a Freudian Western, he is rigidly fixated upon challenging his former mentor, the aging sword master Hua Qian-Shu (Tian Fung), to a deadly duel.
The Sword is emblematic of a subversive tradition of blood-soaked antiheroism in Chinese martial-arts pictures; both Chang Cheh (The Invincible Fist), in the 1960s, and Tsui Hark (The Blade), in the ’80s and ‘90s, have weighed in on the subject. There are bound to be several more specimens of this mutant form on display at UCLA next year, when the full banquet is unveiled. In this company Lee and Schamus, mixing middle-aged heartache with leafy treetop swordplay, look like the gentlest, most elegiac revisionists imaginable. Which could be the secret of their success in the West.