Friday, June 19, 2009

The Joy of Wuxia TV Series

How do we define fantasy-- films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero and House of Flying Daggers all have fantastic elements but are they fantasy? Certainly movies such as The Bride with White Hair, Storm Riders and Chinese Ghost Story add more of what we'd call classic fantasy to the mix. These films come out of a rich mythological tradition, but also out of a Chinese fantasy literature-- the specific genre of Wuxia novels. In the 1960's and 1970's China had a resurgence of interest in those novels and several notable authors made their mark.
As I was hunting through for more films of what we can call “Chinese Swords and Sorcery” I found many of those novels have been made into long-running wuxia television series. You can find a number in the States through online stores or via Netflix. I started watching them and became an immediate fan, despite some of the cheesiness. If you like fantasy and martial arts you should try out at least one of these shows. They're fun and a great insight into how traditional fantasy gets read in a non-Western culture.
THINGS TO BE PREPARED FOR
*The video quality will likely be the first thing you notice when you start watching one of these series. All of them seemed to be done with rather basic digital video-- think the reenactment episodes on various history programs. I'm no expert on DV but there seem to be two levels of focus to what you see-- either straight digital video which has an odd crispness or what I'll call processed DV usually for scenes which have effects or elements added. It can be disconcerting at first, especially for those used to prime time TV image standards. However you can grow used to it over time. I've gotten to the point where I don't notice except when the shot switches back and forth between the two qualities and jars me out of my reverie.
*Confusion, then irritation, then more confusion and finally a state of blissful lack of self-consciousness. The subtitled translations range from adequate to arcane. They're not exactly a Babelfish straight transfer but come close. Given the amount of translating necessary for series of this size, you can imagine mistakes will slip through. However some problems show up consistently-- notably tenses and the use of particular terms. What family members call one another changes from moment to moment-- like a wife calling her husband her brother. You'll also find that the term for “Kung-fu” as a society will change from series to series. Still, the subtitles do get the job done. It doesn't sink to the level of some films I've seen. I remember watching the published version of Dragon Chronicles: Semi-Gods and Semi-Devils and being absolutely unable to follow the plot or characters at all.
*Misunderstandings and non-communication serve as the main engines for many of the plots. You'll finding yourself screaming, “Why don't you say something?!” more than one. Honorable silence in the face of accusations will keep digging the characters into deeper holes.
*The quality of the effects varies between decent and really bad in nearly all of these series. You have to suspend disbelief about the wire-work in many places, but eventually it grows on you. There's a brilliant scene in Condor Hero with two characters fighting across falling umbrellas. While the effects used there feel more than a little static and weak, it comes off amazingly cool and imaginative. Most series use CGI liberally-- in most cases to show attack effects and magical forces flying. Those generally work, but some also present CG monsters and characters that make Hercules and Xena look like a Spielberg film.
*These series range in length from 30-40 episodes, with each episode coming in at 40+ minutes. That means following through becomes a considerable investment of time.
THINGS TO BE EXCITED FOR
*These series range in length from 30-40 episodes. If you hate seeing your favorite series wrap up in 20-some episodes, or even less nowadays, you can really sink you're teeth into these. It's worth checking out the first DVDs from a couple of series to see which one actually clicks.
*These series provide a great introduction to a surprisingly extensive foreign literature of the fantastic. Most are based on Wuxia novels written in the 20th Century-- the 1960's and on. The authors Louis Cha, Gu Long and Liang Yusheng helped the redevelop that genre during this period. They brought more modern ideas about the novel together with what might be best described as a pulp mentality. They are literary touchstones for action, adventures and fantasy like Lord of the Rings, Dune or even James Bond. Many of the novels have been remade several times (ala Dune). Imagine if popular epic fantasy novels like Wheel of Time or A Game of Thrones got this kind of treatment-- forty episodes to tell the story. I'd been aware of the more classic Chinese novels of fantasy and action-- Journey to the West, The Water Magic and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but I hadn't known about these more modern ones until I watched these series. A number have been published in the States and fan-translations of some unpublished works can be found online.
*If you like visual spectacle, then you'll likely enjoy these shows. Each one has amazing costumes-- colorful silks, striking peasant warrior sashes, and period armor. Many series have at least one if not more major military clash with hundreds decked out. The Court scenes are especially impressive to watch. The sets are usually magnificent, and you'll soon be watching for the classic layout of buildings and how the fights will go down in them. These series equally well showcase the amazing landscapes and natural beauty of the region. Its easy to become a little jaded-- “oh look, another amazing waterfall for them to train by...”.
*The fights bring people in, of course, and the series don't disappoint. You'll have a decent showpiece just about every other episode and they are often skillfully executed and a pleasure to watch. The over-the-top battles often combine magical powers and maneuvers with classic swordplay.
LAUGHING IN THE WIND
Probably my favorite of the series I've watched. Based on Louis Cha's 1967 novel The Smiling Proud Wanderer it has apparently been adapted several times into various TV series, movies, comics and even a stage production. Jet Li starred as the main character in the Swordsman I & II. You can also find the Master Swordsman as a domestic DVD-- a fairly bad attempt to cut down another TV series into movie length.
The main character Linghu Chong finds his sect caught up in a complicated battle between the various sects of the wushu world. He finds himself questioning the old practices and alliances-- especially the divisions of the Evil and Good sects, having seen opposite behaviors on both sides. Where many characters in these series have problems arising from pride or naiveté, Linghu's notable for his devotion to drink, often shown as a serious and disabling condition. The story's filled with excellent swordplay, fantastic martial arts forms, and strange magic practices. The complicated and epic story wins for the great characters presented-- complicated romantic circles, drives for revenge and great betrayals.
It does have a couple of drawbacks, however. Some of the episodes seem to have been heavily edited to get them in under the allotted running time. That creates confusion in the early plot of the first dozen episodes. Action jumps from place to place without little explanation for the passage of time. A characters introduced may not be given a decent explanation for an episode or two. Despite these flaws the series is worth putting the time into.
CONDOR HERO
Another one based on a Louis Cha novel, this series has amazing production values. The novel it draws from, The Return of the Condor Heroes, is actually the second in a trilogy. Protagonist Yang Guo turns out to be the son of the bad guy from the first novel, raised for a time by the hero of that novel. Yang Guo eventually studies with a Taoist sect, but escapes from the cruel punishments of his masters. He's taken in by a female supernatural martial artist who eventually trains them in her arts. She raises him until he becomes a young man-- at which point circumstances, confusions, mistaken identities and an intolerant world act to separate them. The story follows their quest to be reunited.
If you want amazing spectacle and over the top wire-fu combats, then this is the series for you. It looks like a much higher budget production than any of the others I've watched. The Taoist formation sword-fighting, the ribbon and sleeve-based styles, and the acrobatic combats make it one of the best shows I've seen. Its worth watching just to see the way the show handles color choices in different places.
However, and this is a big however, the main character Yang Guo doesn't really appear as an adult until something like the fourth or fifth episode. When we first meet him, he's about ten years ago. And obnoxious. I mean, really, really obnoxious-- in that way where your sympathy lies much more strongly with the Taoist masters who want to beat some sense into him. Then there's the other problem-- he's raised by Xiaolongnü a mysterious female martial artist. When he does grow up and they fall in love, there's a kind a creepy vibe to it that everyone seems to ignore. Instead they focus on their violation of the Master-Student relationship. If you can get past that, and make it through the episodes with young Yang Guo, then you get to see a visually stunning show.
THE HANDSOME SIBLINGS
Another great adaptation, this time of a novel by Gu Long. Twin brothers end up separated at birth-- one--Xiao Yu’er-- raised by the Ten Villains and the other--Hua Wuque-- raised as an killer for the mistresses of Yi Hua Palace who had caused their parents death. Both manage to grow up heroic despite this and when they finally meet they join forces. The plot of the series concerns their efforts to break free of their past, save their various loves, and uncover the secret of their birth.
This series has a good deal more slapstick than most of the others. From the first couple of scenes with Xiao Yu'er you might get the impression that the show will end up being more Kung Fu Hustle than Crouching Tiger. However, Dicky Cheung who plays Xiao absolutely sells it. He's a pleasure to watch on screen. He became famous for his portrayal of Monkey in a TV adaptation of Journey to the West and having seen him here, I imagine it must have been great. Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse plays Hua Wuque as the perfect straight man-- his handsome honor against the plots and plans of Xiao. The series hits its stride every time the two of them share a scene.
The series has less of the overtly fantastic elements-- except for some supernatural medicine and medical items, wire-fu fighting styles, and the bizarre set up of the Ten Villains Village (actually intended to trap and keep the villains in). While it does descend into heavy physical comedy at times, it has a healthy dose of tragedy to match that. If you're looking for a lighter place to start that does eventually bring the drama, this might be the show to begin with.
SEVEN SWORDSMEN
Seven Swordsmen adapts another classical martial arts novel, The Seven Swords of Mount Heaven by Liang Yusheng. Tsui Hark produced the series-- but he also directed a separate film based on the same material called Seven Swords. Of course the TV series is about 40 episodes at about 40+ minutes each long while the movie's a little over two hours long. The two have striking differences and similarities in the production and design making it worth it to watch both. Both share the same story of an executioner from the previous dynasty who tries to redeem himself by fighting against the excesses of the current emperor who has made study of the martial arts punishable by death. He gathers seven skilled swordsmen each bearing a magic weapon to aid the people of one village. As you can imagine, the story owes more than a little debt to The Seven Samurai.
While interesting and filled with some memorable bits, the TV series comes off as a slightly low-budget operation than some of the other series here. Shots end up being extensively reused within the span of a couple of minutes, characters change facial hair between shots, and the camerawork can vary wildly in quality from moment to moment. Then there's the issue of the music-- I've become used to hearing the series borrow from other places, including Hans Zimmer's score to Batman Begins. However when the main character first appears on screen we get the Waaa-waa-waa musical cue for the Man with No Name from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This repeats several times, pretty much leaving me with the giggles.
Overall it lacks of the eloquence of the other series, but still manages a few great details. Each of the seven warriors possesses an interesting and unique magic sword with different properties and effects. Their path to learning and harnessing those powers sets up some great moments. However a number of the swords have distinct CGI effects (a warping when blows land, a trail of water) that can get in the way of seeing the action on screen. That's a general problem for the series where interesting visual ideas and CGI effects work to make it harder to follow the action. The series also has a non-chronological approach in the first few episodes which can make things hard to follow at the start-- but does make a nice change of pace. Set in a later historical period than most of the other series, it is also worth watching to see the use of rifles and the shift in costuming for imperial clothing and armor (which quite frankly looks really impractical while at the same time saying: Yup, We're in Black, We're Evil).
Quick Takes:
THE LEGEND AND THE HERO
Based on a classic Chinese novel, Fengshen Yanyi or The Creation of the Gods this has the most high fantasy of the series I've seen. Demon servants, angry gods, magic weapons, sorcerers who cause floods and so on. Has a great mythic quality to it while providing interesting and sympathetic characters. Has lots of CGI creatures and monsters-- dire wolves, serpents, giant panthers, dragons and nine-tailed foxes. Think Clash of the Titans in ancient China
THE PATRIOTIC KNIGHTS
Swordsmen with mystic powers, a legendary book detailing the ways of a poisonous martial arts, and a secret cult run by a white-haired witch. Interesting in that so much of the action focuses away from who we assume ought to be the hero. However the other characters have better stories so it works.
FOX VOLANT OF SNOWY MOUNTAIN
Well done with some exciting sword battles between masters at the beginning. Young man searches for the man who killed his father, only to fall in love with his enemy's daughter. Has a grand conspiracy plot. Most of the fantastic elements reserved to the fighting styles. Does has some green-screen moments that have all the quality of a Sid and Marty Kroft production.
THE SPIRIT AND THE SWORD
A Chinese swordsman raised in Japan returns to his homeland to find a set legendary swords and fight every weapon master in China. Seriously. He wants to fight them all. Good character actors and some great showpiece fights. The secondary plots deal with a wushu conspiracy and an evil grandmother. More elegant cinematography than many other series.
ROMANCE OF RED DUST
Based on a classic Chinese fable rather than a novel, this series has a female protagonist in the central role. Trained as an assassin, Hong Fu turns away from the evil of her masters and must battle her way to freedom. Some dynamite fight sequences with ribbons, cloth and musical instruments.