King Hu and his Swordswomen

King Hu’s martial arts films both honour and innovate wuxia pian, (or Chinese martial arts swordplay films). King took certain elements long established in wuxia, and refashioned them in the films he made in the 1960s and 1970s so that they worked with an unprecedented nuance and impact.

An important convention in wuxia pian in the decades leading up to the 1960s, and one that was seen less often after the interventions of Chang Cheh and Bruce Lee, with their emphasis on hyper-macho kung fu movies, was that of the hero being a highly skilled swordswoman, and one who often had to rescue her effete male love-interest from the villains.

King Hu featured both these character types in his films, and had fun playing around with these male roles. In A Touch of Zen (1971) and Legend of the Mountain (1979), the male protagonists are scholars, lacking in martial artistry, and relying on their wits and charm instead. They are paired with, or pitted against, powerful and skilled female characters.

In Dragon Inn (1967) and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), there are main male characters dressed like scholars, but they turn out to be expert martial artists who exploit their apparently ineffectual appearance to gain strategic advantage over the bad guys. In both these films, they collaborate with female characters who are martial arts experts and shrewd tacticians.

Come Drink with Me KungFuMagazine website
Cheng Pei Pei staring down multiple bad guys in Come Drink with Me

Even while other filmmakers were making male characters the primary focus of their movies, King Hu continued to champion the swordswoman as an important protagonist. In Come Drink with Me (1966), Cheng Pei Pei’s starring turn as the daring Golden Swallow, heroically rescuing her kidnapped brother, made her a star, and the natural magnet for whatever swordswoman roles that were up for grabs at Shaw Brothers Studios. The Fate of Lee Khan features six important roles for women, including Li Li Hua, who turns in a terrific performance as a rebel leader, ably supported by four fierce agents played by such luminaries as Angela Mao Ying, Hu Chin, Helen Ma Hoi Lun, and Polly Shang Kuan Yan Erh, who also starred as an engagingly savvy and skilled swordswoman in King’s Dragon Inn.

One of the villains in The Fate of Lee Khan is played with gimlet-eyed authority by Hsu Feng, one of King Hu’s favourite actors. She acted in all of his wuxia pian, starring in most after debuting in a bit part in Dragon Inn.

I can see why Hsu was so often used by King. Strikingly attractive, and with a strong screen presence, she always manages to impart a sense of intelligence and character in whatever role she plays. Underneath her classy exterior, there is an understated toughness that makes her turns as a martial artist believable. However, she was also an actress with a subtle range. In King’s films, she plays everything from an aristocratic sociopath, to a ruthless sorceress, to a cruelly wronged and grief-stricken daughter bent on revenge, to a thief who learns the error of her ways.

And, as much as I enjoy the many other actresses who play swordswomen in martial arts films, it’s when I think of Hsu Feng, and the different ways King Hu cast her and exploited her qualities and skills, that I can see how rich and varied the swordswoman trope could be in the tradition of martial arts filmmaking.

Hsu Feng Fate of Lee Khan Mubi website
Hsu Feng in The Fate of Lee Khan

Fighting Spirit Film Festival Panel: Follow-Up Blog

A word of explanation: I am writing, and then scheduling, this blog post before you see it and way before the panel I refer to below. That’s why the grammar might be a bit strange.

On Sunday 23 August 2020, I will be honoured to participate in this panel hosted by the Fighting Spirit Film Festival:

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As with all panels, the conversation will ebb and flow so I am not sure exactly what I will say, or what I will have time to get into in detail. So, I thought that I would list a few of my talking points below as a follow up.

The theme of the panel is the cultural impact of martial arts films, and I have been asked on board to give a woman’s perspective. That is ‘a’, not ‘the’, for reasons I will mention briefly below.

Our wonderful organiser and facilitator, FSFF Assistant Director Weng Yu, has indicated that he might – depending on the flow of conversation – ask me about the following:

My personal history as a fan (how I got into these films)

I’m going to cut this long story short and mention just one incredibly important episode in my career as a fan, and then writer, of this genre. For a few years, maybe 7-10 years ago, I was heavily involved as a moderator on the Heroic Sisterhood page on Facebook. Set up and moderated by women, the page (which included both male and female followers) showed me the following:

  • That the female fan base is incredibly diverse; we are scattered across the globe and drawn to the genre for different reasons. This is why I can only offer ‘a’ woman’s perspective on the genre; for me to presume to talk for every woman would be arrogant.
  • That the friendship and encouragement of other female fans was incredibly important in boosting my confidence as a blogger about these films. I felt I had a ‘right’ to be a fan.

Favourite actresses and / or characters:

So many to choose from! So many great performers and characters who were not only entertaining and interesting, but showed strong, complex, rich qualities as female characters and performers. I might, or might not, get time to refer to:

  • Yim Wing Chun, and especially the way this important apocryphal martial artist is depicted in quite different films, and inspires different stories. Compare Yuen Wu Ping’s Wing Chun (1994) starring Michelle Yeoh – a romp of a film – with the quieter and more austere tone of Stranger from Shaolin (1977), directed by Tony Lou Chun Ku and Chun Jo Myuong and starring Cecilia Wong Hang Sau. This film takes the oft used revenge motif, and tells it from the point of view of a woman protagonist finding her way in what is very much a man’s world.
  • Josephine Siao Fong Fong’s brilliant turn as the wonderfully delinquent mother in Corey Yuen’s Fong Sai Yuk and its sequel (1993) overturns expectations of behaviour of both a dutiful mother and a stoic martial arts expert.
  • I would like to mention Angela Mao’s character in Hapkido and Michelle Yeoh’s character in Tai Chi Master. Two more great characters played by great performers; I really like the way these two female characters are depicted not as sex objects or damsels in distress but as colleagues and friends , different to, but important allies of, their male comrades. Given the often shallow depiction of women in movies, this is actually really refreshing to see for us ladies.
  • The female characters in King Hu’s movies. After Chang Cheh and Bruce Lee set the fashion for hyper-machismo films in the 60s and 70s, it was King Hu’s films that played an important role in celebrating a long-standing tradition of female martial artists being centred in martial arts film narrative.

I don’t think I’ll get the time in this panel (there are four panellists, one facilitator, and time for Q&A after all) to unpack the history of Chang Cheh’s intervention in making male stories dominant in martial arts filmmaking. It’s an interesting story, but a nuanced one. I give it a whole chapter in my book, and perhaps there’s a blog I could write about it, but not today.

For those of you booked into the panel – thank you for attending and I hope you enjoy(ed) it. For those of you who missed out, apparently it’s being recorded and you will be able to access that.

New blog on 36styles.com

I was recently honoured to be invited to do some guest blogging for the 36 Styles website.

My first blog is about Chor Yuen’s wuxia pian ‘Roving Swordsman’.

“I was almost fooled!” ripostes Feng Rusung (played by Kwan Fung), one of the good guys in Chor Yuen’s Roving Swordsman, when confronted by one of many sleights of hand that take place during the course of this film’s plot. While it is a throwaway line in one of the early scenes, it is also apt, for Roving Swordsman is full of trickery and deceit as its protagonists and antagonists try to outwit each other.

To read the rest of the blog, and check out 36 Styles great new website, go here.

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Researching Shaw Brothers

One of the most challenging, but, paradoxically, most enjoyable aspects of writing Ask for the Moon was conducting research. Out of respect for both my readers and the filmmakers about whom I was writing, I took great care in assembling reliable information on which to base the stories and ideas I was presenting.

As a long-time fan of martial arts movies I always knew where to start, having parsed relevant books in the State Library of Victoria as well as enjoying online resources such as web archives, blogs, and YouTube clips. As a producer and disseminator of cultural product, Shaw Brothers Organisation has had a huge impact on countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and others in South East Asia. Therefore, when I settled on Shaw Brothers as a suitable subject for my book I knew that I would be able to access a range of materials to help me with my research. Scholars writing about culture, filmmaking technique, history, geopolitics, and business practice in Asian cinema have written many learned texts from which I could draw. Because Shaws was so effective at marketing, there is a huge range of archival promotional material extant and available as well. Academics, fans, entertainment writers, film critics, and ex Shaw’s employees have all created or curated material – blogs, books, articles, audio visual clips and interviews, collections of ephemera, memoirs – that can be easily accessed and explored.

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Lobby card for ‘The Delightful Forest’ (1972)

A special boon was the work of Chinese scholars, film writers, or the cast and crew of the films themselves. For an English speaker like myself, the cultural nuances articulated in these particular materials were especially valuable.

Overall, I tried to access information from a healthy range of credible sources and, if possible, to use more than one source to verify facts.

In the book itself, the bibliography is six pages long and I have included 326 end notes (possibly I went overboard…) In this blog, I have included a short list of my very favourite research materials. Listed below are items that furnished me with the special ‘a-ha!’ moments or were essential in some other way.

Articles, papers, and blogs:

‘Moguls of the Chinese Cinema: The Story of the Shaw Brothers in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, 1924-2002’ by Stephanie Po-Yin Chung is an excellent paper that charts the history of the growth of Shaw Organisation from its earliest days, and discusses the familial business culture that influenced Runme and Run Run Shaw. It can be found in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul. 2007), pp. 665-682.

Another good paper to read for information about Shaw Brothers’ early history is ‘The Shaw Brothers’ Wuxia Pian: An Early Identity and Business-Cultural Connection for the Chinese in Malaya’ by Ngo Sheau Shi. This paper helped me understand the nostalgic allure of early Shaw Brothers’ swordplay films for homesick Chinese expats. It can be found in Kajian Malaysia, Vol. 29, Supp. 1, (2011), pp. 75-93.

Books:

I simply love the way that David Bordwell writes about Hong Kong cinema. He combines the glee of a true fan with the intellectual rigour and deep expertise of an academic. His Planet Hong Kong is a fantastic read not just for historical fact and analysis of film making technique for Shaws’ films, but other Hong Kong cinema as well.

Bordwell’s blog is well worth a look too. I found his blogs ‘Another Shaw production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong’ (October 2009) and ‘Lion, dancing: Lau Kar-Leung’ (2 July 2013) to contain excellent commentary on filmmaking technique.

In my book I wanted to focus on some of Shaws’ important individual filmmakers. Luckily, memoirs exist for a couple of them. Chang Cheh’s A Memoir (translated by Teri Chan and Agnes Lam. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2004) seems to be out of print but I was able to track down a copy of it in a library. Ching-ling Kwok and Grace Ng’s Oral History Series 3 Director Chor Yuen was available from its publisher’s (Hong Kong Film Archive) website.

Poshek Fu has edited and contributed to China Forever: the Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (University of Illinois, 2008) which contains an interesting array of perspectives on Shaws. And, of course, anything by Stephen Teo on Hong Kong cinema will always furnish useful insights and information.

Web based materials:

The Hong Kong Movie Database is a great sprawling website created by fans of Kong Kong Cinema. As well as reviews, it contains detailed lists of cast and crew for 1000s of films, and the filmographies of many of them. This was an invaluable reference tool.

A lovely web archive is the Linn Haynes Memorial Collection, which has digitised copies of Shaws’ own in-house magazines, printed in the 1970s and 1980s and distributed to fans worldwide. Just being able to ‘flick’ through the scanned pages of these publications gave me a great sense of how Shaws wanted to brand itself. Kudos to Shaolin Chamber 36 for hosting this important collection.

Oral histories provide important accounts of lived experience. Albert Odell, who worked for Shaws in the late 50s has a (candid) oral history stored on the National Archives of Singapore website.

Another interesting oral history – that of beloved kung fu movie star Gordon Liu – is contained on the Hong Kong Memory website. An English language translation of the transcription is available.

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Image by Rebecca Stewart

 

 

Year of the Rat

A few days ago the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Rat began. Rat characteristics include cleverness, a strong work ethic, and entrepreneurialism. As these qualities can be recognised in the way the Shaw Brothers ran their business (in fact, Runme Shaw was born in the Year of the Rat*). I thought that I would check to see if anything significant happened for Shaw Brothers Organisation in past Years of the Rat.

Apparently, the Year of the Rat is auspicious for new beginnings. And it was in 1924, the Year of the Wood Rat, that Shaw Brothers got their start as filmmakers:

“By 1924, (eldest brother) Runje had developed an interest in the new technology of filmmaking. He founded Tianyi (‘Unique’) Film Productions and he and his three younger brothers started writing and producing their own movies. This locates them as being among filmmakers participating in an early ‘golden age’ of Chinese filmmaking centred on Shanghai in the 1920s.” Chapter 2, Ask for the Moon

Another important event that happened in 1924 – one that would have a bearing on the development of future Shaw Brothers enterprises – was that Runme Shaw was delegated to go to Singapore to set up the Shaw Organisation, which is still headquartered there today. This move insured the brothers against the ripple on effects of political unrest and business competition in Shanghai. And it flagged a familial gift for entrepreneurialism:

“There are a couple of things to note here – significant markers in this early bit of history that were to harden into patterns of behaviour over the decades. One is the extraordinary perspicacity Shaws showed: Runme was sent to Singapore soon after the Shaws’ movie business started, thereby hedging Shaws’ bets when competition from (other film studios) and disruption from the political situation became too unstable an environment for their business to remain viable in Shanghai. By the time the Shanghai film studio had to close in 1937 (the same year the Japanese won the Battle of Shanghai), the Singapore branch of the family business was well established. This early pivot… paid off. Time and again, during their history after this point, the Shaws’ willingness to embrace the new (whether that be in location or business model) was to be to their benefit.” Chapter 2, Ask for the Moon

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart
Illustration by Rebecca Stewart https://rebeccalennoxstewart.com/book-illustration

The Shaws’ willingness to innovate can be seen as apposite to the Year of the Rat characteristics mentioned above. Truthfully, Run Run and Runme Shaw were such brilliant strategists, and their entertainment empire so complex and busy, that it is hard to find a year in Shaws Organisation’s history when something ground-breaking didn’t happen. Still, perhaps a good beginning in the Year of the Wood Rat in 1924 did do something to put them onto the road to success.

Happy New Year! Let’s hope that 2020 is auspicious for all of us.

*Run Run Shaw was born in the Year of the Goat.