So Chinese New Year has passed recently and we have entered the year of the rooster. I thought this would be a perfect time to talk about one of my big movie passions, Asian cinema and more specifically Chinese and Hong Cantonese movies.
Chinese and Hong Cantonese Movies aren’t just Kung Fu although those movies are awesome and I have several of them on my list of favorites. However, in this article, I’m going to be exploring the beautiful world of my favorite genre of Chinese cinema, wuxia movies!
Wuxia (which translates to Martial Hero) are movies that follow a heroic martial artist character (who is often not military and of a lower social class) as he or she seeks to right wrongs. As far as I have seen they often have some form of tragedy in them and have love as a strong theme.They are visually spectacular with fluid choreographed fight scenes and beautiful locals like luscious green bamboo forests and old-fashioned tea houses.
The most famous Wuxia film, at least in the west is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This film is not solely Chinese though as it has had heavy investment from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the States.
Released in 2000, the film stars Chow Yun-fat as Li Mu Bai, a seasoned martial artist, and wielder of the famous sword the Green Destiny. He is giving up the warrior lifestyle gifting his sword to a friend. The sword is really the catalyst for the rest of the story but is not actually that important in itself as it is the people around the sword who are trying to get it where the real meat of the story lies.
Crouching Tiger is actually my all time favorite movie, it just has so much going for it; interesting and rich characters, the most fantastically choreographed fight scenes (the fight between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) stands out particularly in my mind). The music, which is soaring Chinese orchestral tracks that pull you into this world and spark the imagination, fills your heart with a sense of poetry that is so apparent in wuxia movies.
Now that fight between Yu Shue Lien and Jen that I was talking about. The two female warriors are engaging in a duel, with Jen wielding the green destiny and Yu forced to change up her fighting style as the green destiny eventually destroys every weapon that she uses; this is great as we get to see a fight with Chinese machete’s, hook swords, spears and even a Shaolin spade! All of this on top of a beautifully choreographed scene with excellent camera work combines to create one of my favorite scenes in movies (if you want to check it out there is a link to the video in the movie moments section).
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a strong female presence running throughout. This is a sort of reversal of the norm in that the simpering princess type is actually a bad ass Wudang warrior. The main hero of the film is also arguably Yu Shu Lien and not Li Mu Bai. Top this off with the fact that the main villain is also female and you have a pretty female-focused film. The female characters are not afraid to be vulnerable either; this vulnerability does not take away from the characters but it powers them. Yu Shu Lien feels love throughout the film but this doesn’t make her any less formidable. In an action film like Lethal Weapon or Terminator 2, the women are presented as hard and unemotional and must give up elements of their femininity. Yet in Crouching Tiger, women are almost seen as equals; Li Mu Bai and Lo (the two male leads) must fight with feelings of love as much as the female characters. This is not just a characteristic of Crouching Tiger as the other wuxia movies I will talk about also show a strong female presence and a running theme of women not being who they at first appear to be. Another example of this is in House of Flying Daggers where Mei (again played by Zhang Ziyi) is at first presented as a blind dancer but is in actual fact a powerful warrior. (side note for another cinematic impressive scene watch the drum circle scene from House of Flying Daggers!)
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is subtly humorous in places; one instance finds Li Mu Bai fighting Jen with a twig while she uses the green destiny; another comes during that fight between Yu Shu and Jen when the former tries to fight with the Shaolin spade and can’t lift it.
One of the things I love most about Wuxia movies is their sense of poetry and epic storytelling. Near the end of House of Flying Daggers (2004), The two heroes engage in a sword fight for the shared love of Mei and they fight as the seasons change around them showing how passionately their love burns for Mei until they are fighting in a full on snow storm. The names in these movies are also poetic and tell a story and give us a little insight into who they are with names like Broken Sword, Flying Snow, Jade Fox and Long Sky.
Wuxia movies can also be a treat for the eyes, this is most apparent when you take a look at Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero starring Jet Li. Color is what you will find in this movie from fights between red dressed warriors amongst orange autumn leaves to fights in royal halls draped with green silk and all the colors in between; this movie is packed with color and gives the movie a very striking quality that has stuck in my mind since the day I first saw it.
So that was a couple of examples of the beautiful art of Wuxia movies, a genre close to my heart which shows that Chinese cinema isn’t all action and shouting. I love these movies and I hope this article has inspired you to go and watch them if you haven’t already. Why not let me know in the comments, or on my twitter @MCmoovies, what your favorite Wuxia Movie is. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year.