I like Chinese films, particularly the epic wuxia films. They are often a refreshing change from the effects-driven/CGI monstrosities pumped out by Hollywood. They remind me of the westerns of the 1950s, usually with good and bad sides in stark relief. Subtitles don’t bother me (better them than dubbed).
I’ve watched the Chinese film industry mature over the past three decades and the quality has become remarkable. Cinematography is sometimes breathtaking. One of the most appealing aspects is that they tend to do more with people than with special effects, which gives crowd scenes a more human, less manufactured feel. Gotta love those cast-of-thousands moments.
I also like the mix of reality and the fantastic in wuxia films. Martial arts fight scenes have a dreamlike quality that contrasts with the inexorable, inhuman violence when guns and artillery are introduced. Contrast seems important in Chinese films, although it’s not often subtle.
Wuxia is only one part of Chinese film – like Hollywood westerns – and they have many good dramas about life and ordinary people, but wuxia films are by far more entertaining and captivating to me (with a few exceptions like Ang Lee’s 2007 Lust Caution).
Most westerners got introduced to modern Chinese films through Ang Lee’s great Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, launched in 2000. Other films like House of Flying Knives, Hidden Kingdom and Red Cliff followed. They are combinations of sprawling epics in the Gone With the Wind style, and retelling of Chinese history and mythology, with a bit of Shakespearean drama to enrich the characters. I’ve collected numerous of these post-2000 films. They’re a long way from the Bruce Lee style martial arts movies, and if you haven’t watched any, you owe it to yourself to do so.
Yesterday I found a DVD display at Wal-Mart with several recent titles, all priced at $10. For our Saturday night viewing, I chose Shaolin: Protect the Temple, a 2011 flick with Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, directed by Benny Chan. It also stars the lovely Fan Bingbing, who, unfortunately, doesn’t get as much screen time as she deserves.
Like many wuxia films, Shaolin is essentially a martial arts movie, but following the current trend has complex plot lines, deep historical roots, and grand characters in the Shakespearean-King Lear, Henry V or Richard III mold.
The underlying theme is the clash between the modern and the traditional. The late colonial and post-colonial period from around 1880 to 1930s is ripe for stories of nascent nationalism and the often violent shift from the pre-industrial past to the modern era*. It’s a bit of nostalgia, too, for a time when people lived simpler lives.
Shaolin is set in the violent period of the Chinese Warlord era, before the even-more-violent Civil War that eventually put the Communists into power. Ruthless warlords fighting for territory, power and gold. Unscrupulous foreigners (Westerners who seem but are never quite identified as British) want to drive a railroad through their warring fiefdoms. These foreigners not only expect to profit from the rail, but are also snapping up every Chinese treasure and antiquity they can find. Okay, it’s a fairly blatant bit of nationalist propaganda.
The warlords fall out, and a double-cross becomes a triple-cross and the lead warlord, Hou Jie (Andy Lau) goes from ruler to fugitive after an ambush. He ends up a refugee in the very Buddhist monastery he had despoiled a few weeks earlier. That’s karma for you.
Like so many of these films, it’s also a tale of personal redemption in the Joseph Campbell-Hero’s Journey style. Hou Jie has to overcome his past, and discover inner peace among the Buddhists, and they have to learn to accept the former general. But the victor in the triple cross, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) is hunting for Hou Jie and inevitably they have to confront one another. Along the way we have a massive army-versus-unarmed-but-martial-arts-trained monks battle, with guns and cannon blazing. The monks also have to save China’s heritage from the evil foreigners while they battle the warlord’s army, and protect the refugees displaced by the conflict.
Jackie Chan’s role is a bit ambiguous; he’s the fool (in the trickster model), and his character is sometimes a bit out of place with the melodrama of the others, but it’s not overplayed.
Without giving away more, I’ll finish by saying it’s a very satisfying film, well worth watching, with great fight scenes, even if the climax is rather predictable, albeit spectacular.** I think today I’ll go back to the store and see what others are for sale.
* If you’ve read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, you know a version of that that tale from an African perspective – more personal, without the fireworks though.
** Like most wuxia films, the end is both a moral and closure. Evil must be subdued and the world set right. Again, much like a Hollywood western or one of the Star Wars films.