A Thought on the Ending of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Tom Doniphon shoots the outlaw thug Liberty Valance from the shadows, keeps it a secret, then realizes that his girl Hallie is in love with Ransom Stoddard, whereupon he burns his house to the ground (starting with the new wing he’d built for her. When Stoddard is wracked with guilt thinking he killed Valance, Doniphon relieves his conscience, leaving him free to pursue his political career, founded on his false heroism. Does this make sense?

Setting aside the question of why Stoddard thinks it’s morally acceptable to base his career on a lie, but not on the real killing (he’d rather have people think he killed Valance than actually do it), rewatching the film this most recent time it’s Doniphon that fascinates me. His tragedy is his unwillingness to act. He’s the toughest man in town, admired by all, the only one brave enough, strong enough, fast enough to stand up to Valance, except he won’t do it. Everyone similarly assumes he and Hallie will get married, but he never asks her. He’s even elected as a delegate to the territorial convention but refuses to serve. Despite his many abilities, he simply will not take part in the community. Even his house is far outside the town (whereas Stoddard lives in its heart: at the restaurant and newspaper office). Why does Doniphon hesitate? In all other respects, he’s the same character John Wayne played in countless films throughout his career, the competent hero, cool under fire, respected by all. It would be easy for him to assume the title of town marshal from lovable cowardly drunk Andy Devine, and yet he has no interest. He’s the individualistic strain in American history: the isolationist, the Randian, the pioneer who wants not to build a community, but his own private empire. But he’s conflicted: he finds himself drawn back to the community time and again, ostensibly by his love for Hattie, but also from an honest desire to help the townspeople avoid being killed by Valance and other instruments of the “Northern cattle interests” that are attempting to block statehood, and thus the establishment of law and order in the territory (statehood means the end of the so-called ‘open range’ the literal and symbolic manifestation of the raw capitalist power of the cattle barons: the land belongs to them because they have the power to take it). His sympathy for the townspeople is real, but not enough to motivate him to take action on their behalf.

So why then does he shoot Liberty Valance? And more importantly, why does he do it in secret? Supposedly he likes Stoddard and doesn’t want to see him killed, but what prevents him from announcing his presence before hand, or even after? Why does this man, who has no trouble dominating a political meeting while simultaneously refusing to participate in it, skulk in the shadows like a thief, a coward? Is it that the Randian half of him is ashamed of his altruistic impulses? Seeing how his act of heroism has won Hattie for Stoddard, he becomes disgusted with himself, burning his home, the symbol of his hopes for the future as well as his isolation from the community, to the ground. In a final act of self-negation, he tells Stoddard the truth, absolving him of the act of killing (to which Stoddard had remained steadfastly opposed throughout his ordeal in the West), and taking the sin on himself to suffer alone. That Stoddard, thus relieved of the sin of murder has no problem committing the sin of dishonesty says as much about the nature of politicians as it does his own character.

But what if Doniphon is lying, what if Stoddard really is the man who shot Liberty Valance? In this scenario, Doniphon is not simply a radical individualist who refuses to partake in community out of a twisted kind of idealism, rather he’s simply a coward. Sure, he talks a big game, and he certainly has a certain degree of martial prowess, but he refuses to put it to use, perhaps for fear of failure. This is why he can make a scene at the town meeting, mocking the participants and the rules (“the Law says the bar is closed!”) while turning down appointment to the delegation: if appointed, he might embarrass himself, perhaps showing himself to be ignorant of the rules or other social expectations. Much safer to hide behind sarcasm and mockery. Stoddard has none of this embarrassment. He has no fear about standing up for what he believes is right, regardless of his physical inability to defend it or himself. Stoddard thus fascinates and shames Doniphon. He is everything Doniphon wishes he could be.

And so, when Doniphon sees that Stoddard killed Valance, and thus won the heart of the girl Doniphon was too afraid to propose too, he shatters in self-disgust. He knows that his cowardice has lost him his chance at happiness. But still he admires Stoddard immensely. He goes to the convention and sees Stoddard break down and try to flee rather than stand for election. Recognizing that that kind of cowardice is his own and not Stoddard’s, he gives him a pep talk and tells him what he wants to hear: that he did not violate his belief in non-violence, that he is the man he always thought he was. Thus buoyed, Stoddard rushes off to become the heroic figure that will dominate the politics of the territory, and then state, for decades to come.

Either way, the film ends with the question of whether Doniphon’s nature is individualistic or cowardly (or whether there’s really any difference between the two) deemed irrelevant. As is the question of who really killed Liberty Valance. It’s not just a matter of “printing the legend”: it really makes no difference. Either way, Doniphon destroys of himself in favor of Stoddard’s elevation, and America is built on a lie.

Summer of Sammo: The Heroic Ones

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

A lavish Chang Cheh fable set in the Tang Dynasty (in the late 9th Century) and based more or less on actual historical events. The Empire is in turmoil as an upstart general has rebelled and captured the imperial capital at Chang’an. The Emperor and his advisors call on a fierce warrior, a King from the north, for assistance. He brings his army and his 13 generals, all his sons or adopted sons and recaptures the city. However, in doing so, two of the generals become jealous of the youngest, the best warrior among them, and conspire with one of the Emperor’s aides, a counselor who’d been offended by their barbaric ways and had a personal grudge against the youngest son, to assassinate the King. Spectacular fights and grisly deaths ensue.

The King is based on Li Keyong, a Shatuo warlord (the Shatuo were a Turkic tribe from the north, between Mongolia and China proper, based around Shanxi, just west of Beijing) who came to the defense of the Emperor in the face of rebellion during the last stages of the Tang Dynasty, the breakup of which lead to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, with his oldest son later becoming the first Emperor of the Later Tang Dynasty. In 881, Li was called in to fight the rebel Huang Chao who had captured Chang’an (located to the southwest of Shanxi). He chased him off but was later attacked by an ostensible ally after he made a big drunken scene at the ally’s castle. Li survived and led a ridiculously eventful life. He also had 13 Generals, sons and adopted sons, the most renowned of which was the youngest, Li Cunxiao, an adopted son, who rebelled against his father after being falsely accused of conspiring with his father’s enemies by one of his jealous brothers. This act of petulance resulted in his execution at his father’s hands by drawing and quartering.

It’s unclear if Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang based their screenplay on the historical record or one of the literary adaptations of events. Apparently Li Cunxiao is presented as a heroic figure in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the End of Tang and Five Dynasties Histories (Luo’s better known novel is Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I’ve read half of: it forms the basis of a number of video games as well as John Woo’s recent epic Red Cliff), but I’m not sure if this is an adaption of that, at least it isn’t credited as such. Chang’s film is narrated very much in the classical romance mode, a pre-novel style of literature that flowered in the late Yuan and Ming Dynasty period (14th Century), roughly contemporaneous with the same period in Western literature, for example in the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote in the late 12th century or The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer around the same time Luo was writing Three Kingdoms (as well as editing The Water Margin, another of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, one which Chang and Ni would adapt in a 1972 film of the same name as well as 1975’s All Men Are Brothers. (Wikipedia has this brilliant note on the film of The Water Margin that sums up the level of respect with which these film classics were treated at the time, the situation has not much improved: “The film was bought for release in the US by New World Pictures. Roger Corman cut out a third of the film, had the Shaw brothers shoot an additional sex scene and added a new narration.”)) This style of storytelling is episodic and pre-psychological, with character defined by action rather than an internal monologue or soliloquy along Shakespearean lines. The characters tend to represent types or abstract qualities more than fully-fleshed out human beings. You can find echoes of this in modern Hong Kong action films like Drug War, where the main characters are given no life outside the mechanics of the plot, where everything we understand about them as people can only be inferred by their actions or the physical behavior the actor.

David Chiang plays Li Cunxiao, the favored 13th son of Li Keyong. When we meet him, Li’s men have been brought to a banquet to celebrate their joining the Emperor’s cause thrown by the silk-robed and stuffy imperial retainers. The Northerners, clad in furs, commit wild improprieties, drinking massive amounts of wine from ox horns and generally acting barbaric. Chiang is the drunkest of them all (they actually have to go find him, as he passed out before the party even started) and is challenged by one of the retainers to capture a rebel general. He does so (starting with a graceful slo-mo flip off the castle wall) but the retainer reneges on the wager, sowing the seeds of the later tragedy.

As the generals attempt to capture Chang’an by infiltration and assassination, two of them disobey Chiang’s order and blow the group’s cover. They find refuge at the home of a loyal young woman (played by Lily Li) whom Chiang rescues when those same two sons try to rape her. After they escape and the city is recaptured (the bandit Huang burns the town and flees in the face of Li’s army), Chiang will return to her empty house, vainly searching for her. It’s the rare scene of romance romance (as opposed to historical Romance) in a Chang Cheh film, shot in a lovely orange studio sunset as Chiang realizes thanks to the ravages of war, he’ll never again find this girl he might have loved.

From this point there’s nothing but heroic, bloody tragedy. Li and his army are invited to the town of the offended retainer (now conspiring with the disobedient and jealous brothers) who invites them to a banquet. Li and his 11th son, his second favorite, played by Ti Lung, attend and are tricked (rather easily because they’re so barbaric) into getting way too drunk, along with their couple dozen guards. The retainer’s men then attack and Ti leads a desperate escape, chopping bad guys down by the score. Like the attack on Chang’an, these scenes are of the over-the-top one man army variety, but they are nonetheless thrilling to watch, the masses of men beautifully coordinated by fight directors Tong Gaai, Lau Kar-leung and Lau Kar-wing (Kar-wing also plays one of the generals, as does Lo Wei, who would shortly become best known for directing Bruce Lee in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury). Ti Lung holding a bridge against an entire army proves to be one of the most exciting sequences in any Chang film, providing perhaps the key image of Chang’s whole career (remember: Chang’s heroes die standing up).

After the ambush, the jealous brothers have one last trick to play, leading to Chiang’s character reaching the same ending his historical counterpart suffered (in the same grisly manner, quite artfully shot by Chang) but without the stink of defiance falling on his hero. In reality, Li Cunxiao rebelled against his father out of spite: because he was accused of disloyalty he acted disloyal. In Chang’s world, Li Cunxiao is a victim, but only because he’s so willing to believe the best in his brothers. It is Chiang who prevents their father from beheading them after their transgressions in Chang’an, and their final trick is based entirely on his willingness to trust them to an absurd extent. Thus does a real person, complicated and contradictory and almost certainly unpleasant, become a heroic, romantic figure, one whose tragic weakness is his loyalty and belief in his brothers. It’s the brotherly code that makes the rebellious generals so vile, but it’s the code also that enables their treachery to go so far undetected. This contradiction, the Code cutting both ways, will form the heart of the heroic bloodshed genre as it gets further developed from Chang to John Woo and Ringo Lam to Johnnie To.


Summer of Sammo: Vengeance!

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

This Chang Cheh thriller provided star-making performances for Ti Lung and David Chiang, actors who had played small supporting roles in some prior Chang films (you can spot them clearly in 1969’s Return of the One-Armed Swordsman) but who Chang gave a big push to in 1970, where Chiang starred in four of his movies and won a Best Actor award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival for his performance here. The two actors would star together in a number of films for Chang throughout the early 70s. 
Ti Lung plays a Chinese Opera star whose wife is lusted after by all the big shots in town, including a kung fu master (who looks down on Ti’s show people martial arts) and some officials and gangsters (between which there’s no distinction). Defending his wife’s honor, Ti picks a fight with the kung fu master, winning easily, but is then ambushed in a teahouse (where he’s brought his pet bird, shades of Hard-Boiled here, though more probably taking your bird to tea is just a popular Hong Kong pastime, then as now). Chang intercuts Ti taking on a legion of attackers with a slow-motion flashback to the stage performance that opened the film, the movements of the play matching the reality as Ti’s character is surrounded and agonizingly killed. What we are about to see is as much a performance as the opera: honor and justice demanding a ritualistic revenge, artificial yet inexorable.
David Chiang’s character, Ti’s brother (literally, this is not always the case among Chang heroes, but appears to be in this one) and another stage performer arrives in town (he’s been performing ‘in the South”. The setting is “A City in China” in 1925, and Chiang is sleekly attired in a black suit throughout the film, the neatness of his appearance contrasting with the sloppy, untamed appetites of the greedy and lustful killers. He tracks down and kills everyone who had to do with his brother’s death, while reconnecting with an old girlfriend, the sister of Ti’s wife. Chiang methodically goes about his bloody revenge, cool and deadly with no hint of humor or sympathy or weariness. He is determination, the physical embodiment of the revenge impulse, his slightly long hair swooping stylishly as he spins, flips and kills.
Near the end, one of the bosses convinces him that he wants to help by organizing an ambush of the big boss. He wants Chiang to disguise himself as one of his guards (a gray and blue uniform) but Chiang refuses. For this final battle, he must dress all in white, the color of death. Of course this turns out to be a betrayal as well. Chiang gets his revenge, but is consumed in the process. Like many a Chang hero, he dies standing up, his body refusing to go down even though its life is over (see also Johnnie To’s A Hero Never Dies). Unlike most of Chang’s heroes however, Chiang gets a brief resurrection in which he get to kill the final villain before dying again. This kind of ‘he’s not really dead’ thing becomes common in Hollywood movies in the 80s, inherited I think from slasher films. I don’t recall seeing it that often in Hong Kong, where the dead usually stay dead.
There’s always a nihilistic strain in Chang Cheh’s films, but never more explicitly than here. The code of honor that binds Chiang to seek revenge, even though it will ultimately cost him his own life (as he must know) is as phony as it is imperative. This contradiction lies at the heart of the ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre Chang spawned, influencing directors like John Woo (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer) and Ringo Lam (City on Fire), whose films often end in a knowingly sacrificial act of violence. The most obvious influence is on Johnnie To’s similarly titled 2009 film Vengeance, in which the going-through-the-motions nature of the revenge imperative is literalized with the fantastical To/Wai twist being that the hero suffers from memory loss: he doesn’t know why he has to get his revenge, he just knows he must. Not only is vengeance a performance, it’s utterly mindless.

The George Sanders Show Episode Five: Sneakers and Whirlpool

This week we journey to the Bay Area, sort of, for a pair of movies that are kind of set in San Francisco, Phil Alden Robinson’s all-star 1992 caper/heist film Sneakers and Otto Preminger’s 1949 noir melodrama Whirlpool. We also talk about our Essential Hacker Films, the career of Robert Redford and share the definitive list of the 12 Greatest Living Narrative Filmmakers.

You can subscribe to the show in iTunes, or download or listen to it directly from our website.

Some show-related links:
Here’s Richard Brody’s piece on the Greatest Living Narrative Filmmakers
Some letterboxd lists from Sean: Otto Preminger Films, Gene Tierney Films.
And lists of Woody Allen Films from Sean and Mike.
And here’s a bunch of Pictures of Gene Tierney.

Summer of Sammo: Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, Parts One & Two

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

It took me way too long to realize this was an adaptation of the same material as Kung Fu Cult Master (aka Lord of the Wu Tang), a crazy Jet Li wuxia film from 1993 directed by Wong Jing, one that I’ve seen three or four times. The problem is that where Wong’s story is hyperkinetic, cutting faster than the audience can orient itself, the wild shifts in plot creating a dizzying spasm of color and cheap HK special effects, director Chor Yuen manages to make the story reasonably coherent, establishing a variety of distinct and memorable characters amid the swirl.

The movies are based on a novel by Louis Cha, a mid to late 20th century author many of whose works have been adapted into films (the Swordsman movies with Jet Li, Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time and The Eagle Shooting Heroes, Chang Cheh’s Brave Archer series). I’ve read only the first part of his The Deer and the Cauldron (adapted into Stephen Chow’s The Royal Tramp movies) and it was a lot of fun. It reminded me of Terry Pratchett, a satirical take on the medieval fantasy world and conventions. But this is apparently unusual for Cha: it was his last novel and was intended “as a satire to his previous work, a reminder to the readers for a reality check”. That quotes comes from Wikipedia quoting Cha’s friend, the screenwriter and novelist Ni Kuang, who made a study of Cha’s work as well as writing many of the great Shaw Brothers films of the 60s and 70s.

Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre is much more serious, at least in Chor Yuen’s version. It still takes place in a comic book fantasy world (the opening credits and narration even play out over a colorful painted scroll) but he treats the material more respectfully than Wong Jing does. That’s not too surprising, given that Wong is responsible for some of the grossest lowest common denominator stunts of 80s and 90s Hong Kong cinema. When in doubt, blame everything on Wong Jing, I always say.

The hero, Zhang Wuji, is an orphan, marked for death as a child by a Freezing Palm attack that leaves him marked and sickly. He’s kept alive into young adulthood by a healer living in an isolated woods (the cabin in the woods being an archetypal kung fu location, like the inn, the temple, the palace, etc). Eventually he gets caught up in a massive clan war, as the eight various schools of martial arts (Shaolin, Wu Tang, Er Mei, Ming Cult and so on) are manipulated into warring against each other, and most specifically against the Ming Cult, by a pair of shadowy figures: one a disgraced monk with a connection to the hero’s past, the other a Princess of the ruling Yuan Dynasty (the Yuan were the Mongol rulers of China descended from Genghis Khan, for more about the Chinese revolution against the Yuan, see King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan.) It’s unclear in the film whether the Ming Cult is supposed to be related to the Ming Dynasty. Apparently the novel explains that the cult comes from Persia, and is based on Manicheaism, which is why the other clans, all orthodox Buddhists, see it as an ‘evil cult’.

The film is split in half. Part One follows Zhang from childhood through his accidentally healing himself and learning some advanced martial arts (he has a knack for stumbling across hidden treasures) to his assuming the leadership of the Ming Cult after rescuing its masters from attack by the other clans. The second half follows his attempts to unify the clans to oppose the Yuan and the evil monk, as well as rescue his godfather, a blind recluse who knows the whereabouts of the famed Dragon Sabre, which the bad guys want to get because it contains a hidden secret. The prime movers of the plot are almost all women, and Zhang has complicated love/hate relationships with at least four major female characters. The reversals of the plot are too dizzying to relate quickly, but at least Zhang doesn’t seem able to keep up with the plot either.

Like Heroes Shed No Tears, Chor Yuen’s wuxia world is bright and colorful, with the objects like flowers and tree branches creating frames within the frame, and fog machines liberally sprinkled around the sets. He’s patient with the exposition, allowing the dialogue to play out in long talky scenes in the same way he films the action. It’s about movement in space: the shifts of the actors as they fight and the story as the plot twists itself up then slowly unravels. It doesn’t have the psychological nuance of The Sentimental Swordsman or Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, nor the tightness and inevitability of the scenario in Heroes Shed No Tears. It’s a gorgeous storybook world he builds, one of endless adventure and possibility.

Notes on John Ford’s Fort Apache

Every time I see Fort Apache, I think ‘Surely this must be Ford’s best film.’
But I say the same about a half dozen other Ford films: Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Quiet Man, My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Young Mr. Lincoln.
I’ll probably say it about How Green Was My Valley the next time I watch that, too.
Interesting compare/contrast with Raoul Walsh’s Custer film They Died with Their Boots On. Walsh takes a real figure and makes him heroic, entirely in the face of history, Ford takes a fictional figure and matches him to anti-heroic history.
John Wayne’s character whitewashing Thursday for the press is more subtle than the same scene in Liberty Valance. He turns Thursday into an ideal, a symbolic figure with no basis in the reality we’ve just seen. Despite the false image, the unjustifiability of their war, the heroism of the cavalry is very real.
See also Two Rode Together, where Ford makes explicit the critique of pioneer racism he showed in The Searchers, for the benefit of those who didn’t get it the first time.
Thursday doesn’t hate Indians, he just sees them as less than human. Barely a step above the Irishmen he finds himself surrounded by on the frontier. He despises the corrupt Indian agent, but treats him with more respect than anyone else he meets because his title as a representative of the US Government gives him a class status the others can’t match. Even Ward Bond’s Medal of Honor isn’t enough in Thursday’s eyes: it’s not what a man does, but what he’s called. Social mobility is an impossibility. And yet, Thursday is obsessed with the fact that he’s been unable to rise in the ranks.
Shirley Temple is terrific as the marvelously named Philadelphia Thursday, openly lusting after John Agar with an intense, Judy Garland-esque stare. Cinema lost a great deal when Temple went into diplomacy.
Anna Lee is marvelous as well playing George O’Brien’s wife. Ford gives the women the same hero framing he does the men, as the cavalry marches off to a doom everyone but Fonda knows is coming. She gets the best line of the film, watching her husband disappear for the last time: “I can’t see him. All I can see are the flags.”

If you want to truly understand John Ford, pay attention to the women.

Perhaps Thursday knows what’s coming as well: at the end of the world, the only thing he can think to do is die with a flourish. The Apaches sweep across the last stand like a force of nature: we don’t see Fonda and Bond and McLaglen and Amendariz and the rest of the men die: they are simply erased by the wave.
It’s one of Fonda’s best performances. Only a truly great actor could dance like that without cracking a smile.

Summer of Sammo: Return of the One-Armed Swordsman

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

Chang Cheh’s sequel to his hit 1967 superhero movie finds Jimmy Wang Yu’s hero happily retired to a farm life when he’s asked to join a competition. It seems the top eight local bandits have gathered under one leader and are holding a contest to see who in the martial world gets to claim the title “Sword King”. This is, of course, a ruse to draw out all the local hero-types and capture or kill them. Wang refuses of course, he has no interest in the martial world any longer, but after the first wave of slaughter his remaining human sympathies drag him into the fight by the students of the ensnared masters, who beg for his help.

What follows is a video game schematic plot as Wang and the students take one one bad guy at a time and work their way up to the BIg Boss. Each of the villains has a gimmick, and they’re organized as pairs of opposites (one has a sword on a chain, so he attacks from far away (and is played by Lau Kar-leung), a woman uses her wiles to get in close and attack from there, etc: the oppositions are: Near-Far, Above-Below, Strength-Weakness (Poison), Day (wheel-like swords in the shape of suns)-Night (the final villain, who stealth attacks in the darkness). Wang thinks up clever ruses to defeat most of the bad guys, like a net for the strong man, or standing on bamboo trees for the guys who attack from below, but mostly the fight scenes are just lots of people getting killed. Lots and lots of people, an excessive amount, really.

Gradually it becomes apparent that these are not your typical fun and games action movie deaths. The sheer volume of the calamity becomes thematic: it’s not a movie about action: it’s a movie about death. The villains have no real motivation. The heroes have no distinct personality. Wang is disgusted by the whole thing, but goes through the motions of killing all the bad guys because he’s the only one that can. As the film nears its conclusion, Chang lingers more and more on the aftermaths of the battles, the bodies piled everywhere. The befuddled, powerless yet rescued masters, all their sons and students needlessly slaughtered, can think only to give Wang a shiny gold medal. The villains aren’t characters, in the sense that they aren’t really people. They’re ambition personified, that desire to be the best that drives people to destruction. Only Wang, with his single-minded dedication to his family and his desire to withdraw from worldly concerns is able to defeat the bandits. While so many heroic sons have died, sacrificing themselves for honor and clan, he learns his wife is pregnant.

Summer of Sammo: Five Shaolin Masters and Shaolin Temple

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

Five Shaolin Masters circles back and starts at the beginning of another 1974 Chang Cheh film, Heroes Two, with the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, but then goes off in the other direction. A narrator helpfully informs us that the Chen Kuan-tai character in that film went south and met the Alexander Fu Sheng character, but that this film is about the five survivors who went north, into central China.

Of course, Fu stars in this one too, playing a different, but similarly dopey character. Also starring are David Chiang, Ti Lung and Chi Kuan-chun, all of whom were also in Chang Cheh’s 1976 film Shaolin Temple, about the events leading up to the Manchu attack. Ti and Chiang play the same characters in both films, as does Wang Lung-wei playing the traitor Ma Fu-yi, though Ma was killed at the end of the prequel, and finds himself alive and well in this earlier film. Alexander Fu Sheng plays the folk hero Fong Sai-yuk in both Heroes Two and Shaolin Temple, though in most versions of his story Fong was never at the Temple (there is a version where he dies fighting at the Temple, but that doesn’t happen in any of these movies) and in the first film, he isn’t there either, running into Chen’s Hung Si-kuan shortly after its destruction. So basically the three films are mutually incompatible versions of the same story, in the same universe, one which bears a tenuous factual relationship to our own.

The Qing, or Manchu Dynasty, and its attempts to pacify the population of Southern Chinese loyal to the previous Ming Dynasty are common villains in Hong Kong films. They can easily be read as a corollary to Chinese Communists and their fight against the Nationalist Kuomingtang in the wake of World War II. Much of the Hong Kong population that flocked to Shaw Brothers movies were first or second generation refugees of those wars, and as a British colony were also strongly and openly anti-Communist.

Ni Kuang, who wrote almost all the best Shaw Brothers films of the period (and was a frequent collaborator with Chang Cheh) fled to Hong Kong in the late 50s, after working as a public security official under the Communists. Here’s an anecdote from wikipedia:

Ni’s reason for coming to Hong Kong was the fear of political persecution. When he was working for the CCP, he was tasked with writing death sentences. One time, he questioned his local party chief about why a particular man was sentenced to death, when the only crime stated on paper was that he was a landlord. The chief rebuked him and threatened him with the death sentence if he continued to ask such questions. According to Ni, he complied in fear of his own life. Nevertheless, this was not the worst death sentence he had written as there were many other questionable death sentences that the CCP carried out categorized under “others”. It was from these experiences that Ni made up his mind to escape from the People’s Republic of China.

It can be easy for us to scoff at kung fu films as cartoonish and cheesy. But it might help to remember that they were made by people with a real first-hand knowledge of death, oppression and tragedy. The monks of Shaolin Temple chose to harbor anti-Qing forces, though they knew it would ultimately lead to their destruction. They trained their disciples as much as they could, hoping the few survivors would pass on their learning to new generations, that Shaolin wouldn’t die though the Temple burned. Chang’s version of the Temple story has almost no religion, no philosophy. It couldn’t be further from the mystical visions of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen or the serene theology of Lau Kar-leung’s 36th Chamber. Chang is a materialist, and his Temple only has power if its members can act in the world. When his remaining Masters, having rededicated themselves to their training and defeated the once more-powerful Qing in a set of one-on-one battles, gather at the end of the film, rounding up the anti-Manchu forces at the Red Flower Pavilion, it is an expression of hope, of the people uniting in the face of an seemingly unbeatable foe.

But of course, they are doomed. The Ming were not restored. The anti-Qing movement degenerated from revolutionary political activity to organized criminal gangs called Triads that still exist today. At least, that’s the story the Triads tell themselves.

Summer of Sammo: The Sentimental Swordsman

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

An exceptionally well-written wuxia film, one in which the characters are motivated by psychology rather than fulfilling roles as mere mythological character types, where the tsunami of exposition that swamps so many other films in the genre is distilled into action with the expeditious use of a MacGuffin (a mysterious red package that changes hands repeatedly throughout the first 30 minutes of the film, introducing all the major characters and establishing the ruthless and unstable nature of the film’s world) and where the central character is acted rather than performed, with star Ti Lung’s melancholy hero, haunted by his past, yet patient and honorable grounding the film in a realistic figure.

The plot involves the search of the Plum Blossom Bandit, a ruthless killer that Ti Lung has returned after 10 years in exile to capture. After the Bandit as well is a pretty girl who has promised to marry whoever kills him (he killed her father), drawing the attention of every wannabe hero for miles around, gathering at the home of Ti’s best friend and his wife, Ti’s former lover. Ti gets framed and everyone believes him to be the bandit, and the majority of the film involves the mob attempting to lynch him on the flimsiest of evidence as other, more shadowy figures keep trying to assassinate him (in this respect the film bears a passing resemblance to The Ox-Bow Incident or 12 Angry Men, but with poisoned soup). Ti survives all the attempts to kill him, of course, but his accusers keep dying along the way. But will he solve the mystery before everyone around him is dead?

What differentiates the film from a wuxia mystery I’ve never been a fan of, The Five Deadly Venoms, is the question of motivation. Rather than simply bad guys doing bad things and good guys trying to stop them (often taking way too long to figure out whodunnit), the schemes in The Sentimental Swordsman rely on specific character traits of the victims: the mob’s lust for the pretty girl makes them easy to manipulate, and Ti’s sentimentality, his emotional connection to the people and world around him, makes him an easy target for the cold, ruthless killer. A complex web of motivations is weaved (spider webs and spider imagery recur throughout the film) but the plot flows organically out of the nature of the characters, rather than a series of events being imposed upon a set of character types. This is an inversion of the usual wuxia formula, which is based on a more ancient, pre-psychological story-telling form (think The Illiad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Three Kingdoms).

Wuxia worlds tend to be built around ideas rather than emotions, specifically the ideals of loyalty and revenge, “You killed my master, I’ll kill you!” and so on. They’re medieval romance figures rather than the psychologically real characters you find in a novel (to take an example from Western literature: compare the shallow, plot-only types in Arthurian romances to the complex, rounded people in the Three Musketeers books). The other wuxia films I’ve seen from director Chor Yuen, like Heroes Shed No Tears or Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre are more plot-and-spectacle oriented than The Sentimental Swordsman, but they still resonate more deeply than they probably should. Like those films, Chor creates a beautifully magical world, no one made more with the artificiality of Shaw Brothers sets than Chor, packing the frame with fog and flowers and painted moonlight. With those other two films, Chor often obscures the action, filming it in long shot with objects blocking the principals, out of focus tree branches or gauzy curtains. With this film, as well as Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, another film grounded in character rather than myth, the action is more direct: framed but not hidden. More graphic novel than comic book. The tension between the visually artificial and the psychologically real, between the surface and the depth.

Summer of Sammo: Heroes Two

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

Chang Cheh’s take on the Fong Sai-yuk character has Alexander Fu Sheng playing him as a good-hearted but dim-witted boob who is quite easily gulled into capturing one of the few survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, Chen Kuan-tai’s Hung Si-kuan and handing him over to the actual, villainous perpetrators (Manchu troops, naturally) of said destruction. They constitute the two heroes of the title (it’s not a sequel to a movie called Heroes, but an enumeration of protagonists, like with Warriors Two or Brothers Five) as Fong eventually realizes his mistake and undertakes a daring rescue.

I’m a big fan of Corey Yuen’s Fong Sai-yuk movies, in which Jet Li plays him as a happy-go-lucky goofball, but the dopiness suits Fu Sheng well, his perplexed brow-furrows neatly framed by his arena rock mullet. That film follows a more conventional version of Fong’s story, where he learns his kung fu from his mother who herself learned it from one of the survivors of the Temple’s destruction, putting Sai-yuk two generations removed from the events of Heroes Two. But there are other versions of the Fong Sai-yuk legend, though based on a factual event (the destruction of the Temple by the Qing) it’s as much mythology as history, not unlike the Three Kingdoms stories from a much earlier age, or, on the other side of the globe, the Robin Hood legend. Chen Kuan-tai gets to play a more traditionally noble figure, though he spends half the movie chained to a wall. His character, in real life, created the Hung Gar fighting style, the one used by Wong Fei-hung and taught to his disciples, one of whom taught the father of Lau Kar-leung (it’s a small kung fu world). He’s idealized here, but otherwise isn’t given much to do. That’s a problem with the plot as a whole: aside from the central case of mistaken identity, not much happens: he gets caught, then he gets rescued, then everybody fights.

It starts great (in medias res with the burning of the Temple and Chen fighting his way out) and the fight scenes might be the best boxing scenes Lau Kar-leung and Tang Chia coordinated for Chang during their decade-long collaboration (Tang was a student of Yuen Woo-ping’s father Yuen Siu-tien, the small kung fu world grows even smaller), but the film doesn’t have the depth or resonance of most Chang films (in this respect it’s like Chang’s Duel of Fists), but this is but a small chapter of an epic folk tale. I have high hopes for his 1976 film Shaolin Temple, which hopefully will have a broader scope and delve further into Chang’s psychology of honor and violence while set during the same events.

If you see the same DVD I rented, don’t miss the special feature where Chen and Fu Sheng show off the various forms of the fighting styles they use in the film. It’s pretty neat, and also a precursor to Lau Kar-leung’s distinctive opening credit sequences, with the actors performing against an abstract, dusky red backdrop, as if on an alien, supernatural plane.