HARK, THE TSUI DIRECTOR…SINGS
November 2, 2018
By Dr. Craig D. Reid
SDAFF 2018 features the return of one of the most influential directors in Hong Kong marital arts film history, Tsui Hark, who back in 1983 created a whole new genre of martial arts cinema, fant-Asia, that Boxoffice magazine noted was one of the most important genres of its time. The last time a Tsui film was shown at SDAFF was 2012, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which similar to this year’s film, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (DD3), was also a 3D affair. The audiences fell in love with the film. Tsui is still power housing along since his debut film, Butterfly Murders, some 40 years ago.
From the early 80s to mid 90s, there was no place in the world that could boast a more vital, exciting and genuinely popular cinema than Hong Kong (HK), which devoured Hollywood’s grasp on the world’s movie pulse. Tsui Hark produced quality products at break neck speed at lower costs than US action filmmakers and left them by the wayside.
His romantic ghost thrillers, riveting supernatural powered hero sagas and frenetic paced martial epics filled with fluid magical displays of steel slashing bewitchment astonished American art house audiences famished for a popular cinema that could supply a steady diet of enjoyable innovative and inventive films. His works were compared to Hitchcock and his stalwart fans included names such as Coppola, Stone, Carpenter and Tarantino.
After watching Tsui’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), a film that changed the direction of Asian supernatural cinema, I was hooked on HK’s wuxia film resurgence that visually towered above the period piece kung fu films of the 1970s.
Previous HK ghost films grew tedious where even the best sported an assembly line frugality, mired in shallow apolitical allegory. Yet the rambunctious Zu crossed the lines and dared to address didactic and morally instructive themes. Helming the novel action choreography was Tsui’s friend/colleague, Ching Siu-tung. He dared to shoot fight scenes at 18 fps, further enhanced by elaborate aerial acrobatics, sharp editing procedures and a flurry of outrageous camera angles that surpassed the antecedents of all martial genres.
Zu gracefully intertwined Chinese myth with comic book action. It was a roller coaster of eye-popping magic powers, world-protecting deities, killer poltergeists and supernatural heroes. The formidable demon, the Evil One, a large red beastie that continuously changed was genius. One moment it’s fire, a red blanket, a ghost and then whatever else was decipherable via quick-cut editing maneuvers and spliced far out visuals.
Due to Zu, Ching was dubbed the father of wire-fu and the Vietnamese-born, HK raised and US trained Tsui, the acknowledge leader of the new wave HK filmmakers, became known as the father of fant-Asia, a new martial arts genre that evolved into a seductive wild mix of horror, sex, sorcery, fantasy, sci-fi, and kung fu/swordplay cinematic feats.
Tsui was a pioneer in HK VFX, where today, his Film Workshop Company commands breakthroughs before the others. In 1993, when I was a weeklong guest on the set of Once Upon a Time in China V (1994), Tsui shared, “I brought in American FX experts to help with Zu, like Peter Kuran (Star Wars). I was concerned the American technicians might have a tough time adjusting to HK filming ways; they did. They constantly argued.
“Nine months later, during postproduction, I realized 50 shots were missing. Without my knowledge, a line producer cut out scenes from the script. I asked Golden Harvest to let me re-shoot and re-edit the film for free. They declined. Zu could’ve been much better.”
When most HK films featured hopping vampires and green skinned fanged femme fatales seducing comic relief characters, in 1987, Tsui reunited with Ching to introduce a new wave fant-Asia horror film, the sparkling Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Determined to shun American slasher-monster films, he focused on creating a traditional story that Chinese audiences could relate to, a love story between and a ghost and a mortal.
The challenge was to avoid highly stylized swordplay and imbue quick tempo action with flowing movements without being cartoony. The most memorable image was the swirling silk, the beautiful ghost’s long sleeves spinning like a hypno wheel as she flies toward the heavens and vanishes into thin air. After two sequels, countless copycats followed.
When Tsui was 13, he started making short 8 mm experimental films about magic and drew an old style kung fu comic strip for a local paper. Although he never practiced martial arts, reading wuxia novels and exploring those worlds were important to him.
His fant-Asia flicks are whirling affairs, serendipitous as a gentle breeze with the clout of a violent tornado. Laced with predictable search and destroy plots, they magically weaved in traditional righteous swordsman and intelligently molded age-old folklore into modern works of art where the line between real and supernatural was poetically blurred.
This was evident in the Tsui/Ching landmark Swordsman trilogy, his homage to classic Chinese swordplay epics of yesteryear. They’re great films that combined entertainment with spiritual sustenance and high vaulting heroes and villains. They burst with gross images of killer bees, swarming scorpions and writhing snakes further enhanced by exploding bodies ripping apart and imploding into their own head. The carnage of slicing and dicing displays were more operatic ballet than violence.
One of the most extraordinary fights in swordplay history is a minute duel comprised of 60 separate shots between Jet Li and a disfigured swordsman at night in Swordsman II (1992). Ching juggles nine guys on wires before Jet flies in like a yo-yo and skims along the ground like a rock skipping across the water’s surface. The film’s an adaptation of the wuxia novel based on Feng Ching-yang, the Smiling Proud Wanderer and it introduced rampant gender-busting and homoerotic subtext which blitzed HK with novel socio-sexual overtones.
“These films were embraced because they were so unrealistic,” Tsui averred, “though based on traditional stories, their success hinged upon inserting modern day elements so today’s audience could relate to the characters and stories. The choreography and special effects were the points of these films, in a sense, modern day ideas.”
Tsui’s respect for martial traditions of yore are vividly portrayed in his Once Upon a Time in China films, which starred Jet Li at a time when his career was waning. The series revamped the folklore hero Huang Fei-hong and this time around made Huang a popular legend worldwide. Apart from the crazy ladder fight in OUTIC (1991), the breathtaking clashes between Jet Li and Donnie Yen in OUTIC II (1992), which were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, are arguably the most engaging duels in the franchise’s history.
Another historical wuxia epic in martial arts film history is the Chang Cheh directed, Jimmy Wang Yu starring One Armed Swordsman (1966), Shaw Brothers first film to earn $1 million. Tsui’s visceral retelling tribute The Blade (1995) is a fascinating, brutal, revenge-begetting film featuring maniacal battles filled with dazzling display of clanging swords, swirling flames, billowing smoke and gut-wrenching sequences of flesh hacking and whacking that will leave you breathless. Choreographed by Yuen Bun, you’ll be in disbelief when you realize that none of the action bits use wire gags. You walk away from the film similar to a piece of fruit who thought that a blender was a relaxing Jacuzzi.
In regard to his revisiting wuxia classics, Tsui explains that much of it has to do with his childhood memories, impressions and preferences, emphasizing that it’s impossible to share these special feeling with audiences today. “Though the subject matters of the original Huang films are outdated,” he added, “in my world, they never became outdated and that’s why I did OUITC and created a different Huang from what I watched as a kid.”
Though Dynasty (1977) was the first 3-D wuxia film, which required using Anaglyph, red & blue 3-D glasses, it follows suite that Tsui’s foray into 3D, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011), was a sequel to King Hu’s milestone Dragon Gate Inn (1967). Reunited with Jet Li after an 18-year hiatus, what sets Flying Swords apart from Hollywood made 3D ventures is that after the first 15 minutes of an American 3D, film the audience gets so used to the effect that we forget it’s in 3D. Cognizant of that fact, Tsui constantly blasted wild and wacky visuals into your face to remind us that we were in his 3D world. The finale fight between two swordsmen inside a giant 3D tornado blew away audiences’ minds like TNT in a glass factory, yet made it delightfully smashing.
The tempo of Tsui’s film always produce an authentic startling rush of excitement where the unabated pleasure and exhilaration of movie going is reborn to it’s purest form…fun.