So how if Xmas holding up for you all? Managed to get lots of nice presents? Have you succeeded in trying to kill yourself with a turkey & stuffing induced bout of gout? Well have no fear as we have a lovely accompaniment to those resultant meat sweats.
Now when i were a young lad, watching TV in the UK during the festive period was a lot more fun. Bond Films, A Muppet Xmas Carol, and other assorted bit of yuletide oddness. In particular Channel 4 used the opportunity to provide us with something a little different to the likes of It’s A wonderful Life, or A Yogi Bear Christmas. In the late ’80s/early ’90s they would often have seasons of cult cinema late at night during the xmas period. It was here where i would be first exposed to the films of Jackie Chan, It was also where i was first introduced to the films of Tsui Hark, the subject of tonight’s Sunday cult film corner.
Hark has been considered by some to be “The Spielberg of Hong Kong Action cinema.” As a producer, screenwriter, actor and director, he was a main instigator of Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema (typically early 1980s to mid 1990s), he was considered one of the leading lights of the Chinese new Wave of Cinema. He first came to prominence in the ’70s with the challenging, satirical films ‘Butterfly Murders‘ (1979) and ‘We’re Going To Eat You’ (1980). From there he would go on to make several Hong Kong film classics that include A Better tomorrow, and Once Upon A TIme In China.
Whether it’s hard-boiled noir thrillers, of mixing classic Chinese storytelling with kung fu action and Hollywood style special effects, he has developed a style that is a high-octane assault to the senses full of hyperfast editing, comic book style humour, and a furious energy unmatched by any other director in Chinese/Hong Kong cinema. His films have helped to establish the careers of the likes of John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, and Ching Siu-tung.
But tonight we’re going to concentrate on two of his best known kung fu movies from the ’80s that helped to establish his reputation and cement his trademark style.
First up is ZU WARRIORS FROM MAGIC MOUNTAIN. Directed in 1983 it pushed the boundaries of special effects in Chinese cinema (Hark would bring Hollywood effect technicians in to work on the film) in ways that were unprecedented. the film tells of a soldier (Yuen Biao) who has become disillusioned by the endless civil wars that have been fought. After one particular fight, he escapes the battle by falling off a cliff, but descends unharmed into a cave, where he is rescued from an attack by glow-eyed flying demons by a fantastic warrior with a magical flying sword. He goes to a mountain where with the swordsman, a monk and his apprentice, (Sammo Hung), and some lovely temple ladies in a quest to defeat the Blood Demon, a being of pure evil and save the world.
ZU WARRIORS is quintessential Chinese fantasy kung fu action. From the very start we are treated to all manner of strange and gravity defying scenes with warrior priests and monks who can fly. ancient priests with magical eyebrows and female temple warriors who can command cloth as a weapon. the visual flair and use of the camera is spectacular. Many of the fight scenes contain numerous cuts and edits which give a near ADD style of kinetic energy and movement. And even though he was working on a tight budget, the effects still manage to stand the test of time, especially in his use and manipulation of fabric and textile, giving them a near life of their own.
Naturally while the actually plot and dialogue is utter pish (what else would you expect for a Jung fu movies), ZU WARRIORS is definitely 100 minutes of pure speed fueled excitement. Essential watching.
The second in our Tsui Hark double bill is A CHINESE GHOST STORY. Made in 1987, Tsui instead of directing would go on to be the producer, giving the directing reins to Ching Siu-tung.
The film tells the story of Ling Choi San (Leslie Cheung), a humble tax collector, who arrives in a small town to carry out his work. Unsurprisingly, no-one is willing to give him shelter for the night, so he ends up spending the night in the haunted Lan Ro temple. There, he meets Taoist Swordsman Yin Chek Hsia (Ma Wu), who warns him to stay out of trouble, and the beautiful Nip Siu Sin (Joey Wong), with whom he falls in love. Unfortunately, Hsiao-Tsing is a ghost, bound for all eternity by a hideous tree spirit with an incredibly long tongue that wraps itself round its victims and sucks out their life essence (or ‘yang element’). Together with the swordsman Yen, he descends into the underworld to save Nip’s soul and free her from purgatory.
Compared to the wonderful ZU WARRIORS, A CHINESE GHOST STORY represents a major step up in the style and look of the canon. As with many HK films of this style there are many of the tropes we’ve come to expect. there are flying swordsmen, graceful fight scene choreography, and numerous supernatural elements (The main plot of the film is based on an actual Chinese ghost story by Pu Songling around 1700), but here the smoothness of the editing and the camerawork is simply breathtaking. It gives the fight scenes a certain balletic gracefulness. This is also helped by the subtle erotic gracefulness of Joey Wong as the poor ghost, mixing sexiness and sadness with equal measure.
Naturally of course there is also a healthy dollop of weird involved. I mean where else are you going to see stop motion zombies, vicious flying heads, and a transvestite tree demon who has a killer 50 metre tongue? Definitely not in The Matrix!