Saturday, January 13, 2018

Wuxia Homework: Shaw Brothers Films on Amazon Prime

In preparation for next month’s Hearts of Wulin PbtA game, I’m working through Amazon Prime’s Shaw Brothers wulin movies. Growing up, I saw these films occasionally as afternoon TV filler. That was rare; more often retro movies consisted of creature features, adventure classics, and Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. It’s too bad—I would have loved these martial arts epics. With a few exceptions, I never got into conventional adventure stories: Swashbuckling, Robin Hood, Arthurian, or even Westerns. But these films with unexplained backstories, odd magic, flashy fights, and bad special effects would have wooed me.

Many, if not most, of the Shaw Brothers films on Amazon fall into the “Wandering Knight” category. They offer tales of lone heroes avenging wrongs, dealing with the costs of being wulin famous, or getting caught up in clan conspiracies. You can see a few other types-- comedies, historical/literary epics, and Shaolin Temple films—but they’re the minority. Most of their Shaw Brothers library comes from the 1970s, the earliest from the late 1960s. A few go up to the early 1980s; they’re particularly well shot but also stilted and mannered.

If you watch a bunch in quick succession as I have, you pick up on the repeated tics (places, scenes, props, characters, actors). All of the Shaw Brothers martial arts films have a look to them, super clean and staged. I’m shocked that the same period also saw the release of Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). Those films radically shift the formula and presentation, making the Shaw Brothers films look old and creaky.

You can also compare these to films from Shaw Brothers’ rival studio/production house, Golden Harvest especially from the early 1980’s. Those feature brutality, mess, and a rough cinematic style. Films like Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), Zu Warriors (1983), and Mr. Vampire (1981) keep the wulin world, but move away from clean staging. They’re also the precursor for latter wild wuxia films like Heroic Trio, Bride with White Hair, Chinese Ghost Story, and The Duel. John Woo’s early entry from them, Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979) uses the genre’s element but hints at his future stylishness. You also have a host of Jackie Chan martial arts film in multiple genres moving away from a straight, operatic approach.

For American comparison, it’s like watching late period Westerns (John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or John Wayne’s McLintock or El Dorado) and then watching a Sergio Leone or Sam Pecinpath film. There’s a massive tonal and visual change.

I dwell on this because, as much as I love the Shaw Brothers stuff, these aren’t great films. They’re a super acquired taste. Sherri repeatedly rolled her eyes as I watched them. They’re hyper-stylized, with weird dramatic conventions that wear thin if you watch a bunch in a row. Some have great fight set-pieces and I love those. But more often the action blends together.

They’re also quite different from the Chinese wuxia TV series that I dig (and have talked about before). There’s a body of wuxia literature that both draw from. I’ve watched Shaw Brothers and more modern TV series adaptations of a couple of these novels (The Proud Twins/The Handsome Siblings; Sword Stained with Royal Blood). The films compress and focus on a single theme, where the series give the story time to grow and breathe. In the end I prefer the latter for sheer soap opera complexity, but if I’m just sitting down to watch a little something, I’ll more often go to the films.

I’m not an expert on any of this media. Instead I’m an enthusiastic amateur, so take what I say with a grain of salt. There’s a ton of great (and not so great) movies and & TV shows in this genre I haven’t seen or read about. I watched only subbed movies. I'm not a purist, I''ll watch anime dubs, but the English voice acting can be painful in these. OOH the new transfers from Celestial Pictures are amazing and clear, 

Death Duel (1977)
I had a weird experience with this. I’d started watching a 2016 movie called The Swordsmaster on Netflix. I stopped 45 minutes in and forgot to go back. Watching Death Duel I had a growing sense of familiarity. Turns out they’re both based on the same novel novel by Gu Long. That made sense; the plot has a strange formal feel to it. It’s clearer and more literary than some other Shaw Brothers movies.

Death Duel has interesting twist: the first character we see vanishes for most of the film. The playoff’s a little obvious, but that’s a hallmark of these films. The movie has some great cameos from the Shaw Brothers stable (including Ti Lung who appears in almost all the movies on this list). It’s OK, not as fun as others. Has a cool bit for the ending, but also fridges the main non-villain female.

Duel of the Century (1981)
I love this wild, convoluted movie. The plot jumps into high gear from the first scene that introduces six characters spouting indirect exposition. Most of them then functionally disappear until the end. The story isn’t broken or haphazard, instead there’s just so much going on: imposters, double crosses, dead suspects, and so on.

Partway through I realized this fell into a series of films with a recurring main character. The martial artist detective Lu Xiaofeng appears in a series of novels and films. I had another moment of déjà vu when I figured out one of my favorite modern wuxia films, The Duel (2000), draws from the same novel as this. As with Death Duel I had a weird sense of having watched/not-watched the movie before.

Anyway, I love Duel of the Century for the high-speed melodrama and world-building. I dig Lu Xiaofeng and his circle of amazing friends (a blind monk, the King of Thieves, etc). Tony Liu became one of my favorite actors from his performance here—charming and fun. I recommend this, but be prepared to not get the thread of the story until halfway through.

Clan of Amazons (1978)
Not actually about Amazons. Yes, there’s an all-woman secret fighting society, but in no way are they Amazons. This is another Lu Xiaofeng mystery. It’s more straight-forward than Duel of the Century, but still has weird twists and secondary characters. Xiaofeng’s asked to solve the mystery of the “Embroidery Bandit” who blinds his victims with needles. That made me cringe, but it’s essentially just people clutching their hands to their faces with red tempura paint pouring out between their fingers.

There’s some odd bits including bed-wetting and presumably offensive jokes about the Cantonese. But overall it holds together. Has some great gameable challenges for characters. I particularly like that during the first half, Xiaofeng investigates alongside his girlfriend Xue Bing. She’s treated as an equally competent martial arts hero during these scenes. While she’s eventually kidnapped, she gets her own in the final fight sequence. I dig it.

Pursuit of Vengeance (1977)
A couple of great leads, an Agatha Christie-style mystery set up, and a lot of people in Mission Impossible-level disguises. I dig the sheer number of colorful characters and the over-the-top twists. It never, ever stops moving. Great chemistry between the protagonists. During fights one or the other sits out because “they’re not trying to kill me.” The movie also ends with a butt joke. A good stand alone movie.

Soul of the Sword (1978)
I think Shakespearean pretty much covers this one. Our swordsman protagonist wants to beat legendary top swords master, he falls in love, and tragedy ensues. Wuxia toxic masculainity: The Movie. Soul of the Sword has a “twist” that you can see coming miles off, but still feels right. The movie treats women particularly badly; even the villainess comes off looking dopey. Not one I’d go back to watch again.

The Sentimental Swordsman (1977)
First of a series with the central character played by Ti Lung. He returns home from ten years exile to find everything kind of a mess. He’s accused of a crime and despite lots of evidence and character witnesses, everyone immediately believes he’s done it. It’s never clear whether the people have an ulterior motive, are just stupid, or if that’s the dramatic convention of these movies. Takes the long way around to get from place to place and just about everyone dies except the lead and his swordsman buddy. Also Ti Lung’s character clearly has debilitating tuberculous which is sells by occasionally coughing.

Return of the Sentimental Swordsman (1981)
We see the same character several years later and get to watch some martial arts moping. A couple of cool sword-fights, but a weak plot that relies on people being even dumber than usual. If you like the characters from the last film, it’s worth watching.

Perils of the Sentimental Swordsman (1982) 
I think it’s supposed to be the same character, but the plot of the last two movies doesn’t matter, only the main character returns, and the tone’s all over the place. Plus some gay panic moments played (of course) for laughs. Clearly they had a script laying around and plugged it into the series. It’s OK, but does have a great town of criminals set-piece which you could adapt for a game.

The Supreme Swordsman (1984)
Has great and gameable bits to it. There’s lost clan arts, mystical secrets, and a strange training gauntlet for the hero. The villain’s compelling and gets just as much screen time as our hero. In fact, the villain’s more interesting. He fights swordmasters to get their weapons to complete his collection. Of course the final fight takes place in the villa housing his 99 sword trophies.

There’s cool world building going on throughout. We find out pieces, but there’s a ton left unstated. That’s my favorite kind of stuff. The film has two great sequences. First, when the villain comes to challenge the venerable sword master, the elder defeats him with a paint brush. It’s a great visual moment as he paints a line of black across the villain’s throat. Later during their rematch, the sword master simply breaks his own blade and drops it, leaving the villain nothing to fight him for. A good film, though there’s an extended wtf section in the middle.

If you watch this, keep in mind it came out the same year as Ghostbusters, The Terminator, and Dune.

Swordsman & Enchantress (1978)
Ho boy. This one goes in unexpected directions. Most other films on this list have some coherency. They get weird in places, but this one has serious wtf twists and turns. It also leans hard into the wuxia dramatic principle: heroes are dumb. Unless you’re in a story specifically about detectives, your wandering wulin characters will walk into every trap, ignore every warning sign, drink every potion, and be fooled by every disguise.

The movie has severe problems with space and time. We get from point A to B with no explanation and things which shouldn’t be close together are. For example the hero gets attacked in his mountain house. He runs maybe fifty feet to find himself at the secret door to secret villainous house. Was he living next door to it the whole time? There’s lots of bits like that.

Also, there’s no enchantress in the movie.

It wins me over because Ti Lung’s so good as the rough, barbarian warrior living in the mountains in a super nice and ornate house…weird.

But the movie also has a shrunken villa and miniaturized martial artists. The translation calls them puppets when I think they means dolls, but whatevs. It’s nuts. Great and gameable.

And the villain’s plot? It makes absolutely no sense when you actually think about it. It’s worse than the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. I mean, no sense. For example, when a villain wants to frame the hero, she instructs the guards she’s robbed to tell their master that “Xiao stole their treasure.” Everyone just goes along with that, “well, obviously he did it because the person who robbed me who clearly isn’t them said so.” That happens several times.

Fun and has a couple of solid female characters, especially the young villain.

The Deadly Breaking Sword (1979)
The only one of these I’d watched before. It’s one of my favorites and I’m not quite sure why. One of our two protagonists seems like a villain at the start, but he’s called out on some of his arrogance. Our other protagonist is a skillful but comic character who’s charming until he drops a woman headfirst down a well. I like the actual villains of the story and the final fight with an acupuncture-revived transformed warrior. Some good bits to steal, especially the jail break out. That sequence feels like a PC going “f*ck it, the only way to solve this problem is to ride a long ways, break this dude out, and get him to say who the bad guy actually is.”

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