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Tsui Hark's Martial Arts Heritage

Hong Kong auteur Tsui Hark is back after five years of silence, with his new martial arts flick Seven Swords.


The film, starring a dream lineup including HK actors Leon Lai, Donnie Yen and Charlie Yeung and South Korean Kim So-yeon, is based on a novel about a team of seven swordsmen who help defend a village of the Heaven and Earth Society fighters from an army of mercenaries hired by the emperor to exterminate all martial arts exponents. Since its Asian premiere in late July it has pocketed more than US$8 million at the box office, about half its investment.


Despite its appeal to audiences, it has prompted much debate among critics. Some claimed Tsui had failed to return to form after his dismal Legend of Zu in 2001, unlike his early kung fu feasts that were filled with a strong chivalric flavor. In their opinion, Seven Swords was a mix of unnatural narration, bloody scenes, unconvincing love triangles and sudden lusts and crushes.


Tsui said he just wanted to tell a martial arts story in a different way, and that as long as it was well-received in cinemas he would continue to make the sequels.


He is supported by a large number of loyal filmgoers and critics in this who believe Tsui is one of several directors capable of reviving the martial arts genre and genuine wuxia spirit after decades of ups and downs.


Back in the 1920s, filmmakers Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu established the Star Film
Company in Shanghai and made the highly successful The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, a story about fights between a group of gallant swordsmen and evil monks. The film sparked the first martial arts fervor in China and the company produced 18 installments from 1928 to 1931. Also in this period, a total of 227 martial arts movies were screened in the country.


However, few ordinary people had the chance to receive a modern education then and an overwhelming majority did believe in ghosts and the supernatural. The KMT government banned the genre on the mainland, so the martial arts whirlwind went south to another filmmakers' heaven: Hong Kong.


The 19th episode of The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple was made there in 1935. Between 1938 and 1959, 336 wuxia films were made, but none caused a sensation due to weak subjects, mostly based on anecdote and trivial events.


Martial arts movies once again experienced a heyday in the 1960s and 70s when wuxia novels by Liang Yusheng, Louis Cha and Gu Long became increasingly popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Come Drink with Me (1966) by director Hu Jinquan and One-Armed Swordsman (1967) by Zhang Che became known as milestones. Hu echoed Louis Cha's elegance and themes while Zhang developed the violent aesthetics of Gu Long. A total 683 martial arts films were shot in Hong Kong and 87 in Taiwan during the 1960s.


From the 1970s, kung fu flicks gradually outshone ancient costumed swordsman films. Action legend Bruce Lee used his own martial arts style jeet kune do, "way of the intercepting fist," to introduce kung fu movies to the rest of the world. His successor Jackie Chan also created a new style of kung fu comedy. Some 545 martial arts films were made in the 70s.


The 1980s saw the genre stagnate in Hong Kong, and only 144 movies were made. But on the
mainland, a new kung fu craze was ignited by Zhang Huaxun's Mysterious Buddha (1980) starring Liu Xiaoqing. In the following years, many fine works were produced, including Wudang, Magic Scourge and Shaolin Temple, through which action master Jet Li became a household name throughout the country.


In an effort to reinvigorate martial arts movies, Tsui Hark shot Swordsman and the Once Upon a Time in China series in the early 1990s. Other directors active in shooting films during this period included Wong Kar Wai and Lau Chun Wai from Hong Kong, He Ping from the mainland and Zhu Yanping and Lai Shengchuan from Taiwan. With their own cinematographic styles, they redefined the world of martial arts films but didn't come to maturity.


It was not until 2001 that Ang Lee saved the struggling genre with his Oscar-wining epic Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The film regained an international reputation for wuxia films
and resulted in many filmmakers seeking to cash in on Ang Lee's critical and popular success. Among the tributes were Zhang Yimou's Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Chen Kaige's The Promise. But despite great commercial success, raking in over US$49 million, Hero and House of Flying Daggers were accused of losing the essential character of martial arts films.


Unlike the older generation of filmmakers who immersed themselves in martial arts novels, Zhang Yimou and others lack a comprehensive knowledge about wuxia and the form always outperforms the content in their works, according to Zheng Peipei, a famous Hong Kong martial arts actress from the 1960s.


Casting aside all the glories and difficulties, Tsui and other Chinese directors never seem to stop striving to revivify the martial arts genre, especially today as the country's film industry is embracing its centenary anniversary in the new millennium.


(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, August 9, 2005)

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