Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Chang Cheh on 60s wuxia and their social context

"swordsmen, assassins, martyrs and death-defying fanatics ... tragic men who defy authority and the establishment": Jimmy Wang Yu as the eponymous hero of Chang Cheh's The Assassin (1967). An icon of anti-authoritarian revolt for the counterculture?
"The 60s and the 70s were the most energetic periods of Hong Kong – the period when young people exerted themselves. The age of love tales was past. The masses were striving ahead in a rebellious mood and the colonial administration was receiving a shock to the system ... The martial arts pictures represented this spirit of the times. After I made The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), riots broke out in Kowloon. Then, during the riots, I made The Assassin (1967). In an [sic] Ming Pao Monthly article published on May 1968, titled 'Hong Kong's Anti-Establishment Movies and the Mass Movement,' Law Kar wrote: 'Zhang Che's movie characters are young swordsmen, assassins, martyrs and death-defying fanatics. His heroes are tragic men who defy authority and the establishment.' At the time, people called my movies 'violent', and 'bloody'. I always thought this was a very shallow way of looking at my movies."
From Chang Cheh's essay, "Creating the Martial Arts Film and the Hong Kong Cinema Style," in The Making of Martial Arts Films: As Told by Filmmakers and Stars (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 1999).

Chang Cheh was one of the key directors who transformed the martial arts genre in Hong Kong cinema during the late 1960s, pioneering the "kung fu" film. It's interesting to see him contextualise his practice in this way, considering that he is often counted a cultural conservative, with politics far from the radical left.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Brechtian Pirates?

In a Chang Cheh movie, The Pirate (Da hai dao), of 1973, there is an almost Brechtian moment.

The hero, swashbuckling historical buccaneer Chang Pao-Chai (played by Ti Lung), has been stranded in town where he is a wanted man, but instead of running, he has decided to stay to help a group of villagers who are being exploited and driven into bankruptcy and slavery by a corrupt, monopolistic magnate, who owns both the local shipyard and the brothel and has dodgy dealings with the local authorities. Chang has decided to rob the magnate in order to give the locals cash to have their boats repaired and thus to get out from under the heels of their tyrant.

Finding out about his scheme, one of Chang's piratical followers, turns to another fellow (or actually to us, the audience), wondering at their chief's generosity, bravery and humanity:

Pirate 1: Pao-Chai is really great, which makes me feel great too.
Pirate 2: Even if we have done good deeds, we are still pirates.
Pirate 1: That's true. But we were not born pirates. We were born as men. We became pirates since we had no choice. When there's an opportunity, we'll do as men will do.
Pirate 2: (lauging) You still know this principle!